Thursday, December 30, 2010

Three Carnations

There’s a body buried in the Carver Houses.

The George Washington Carver Houses belong to the New York City Housing Authority, a city agency which houses New Yorkers and their families in sometimes tired and worn down but solid, singular-looking buildings throughout the five boroughs.

Like the pigeons that used to nest in coops on top of apartment buildings, rumors have flown for years that Mount Sinai Hospital has plans to take over the Carver Houses and use the apartments as housing for their medical residents. I heard these rumors 10 years ago; I still hear them today.

But the Carver Houses are still here and so is the body. Three weary pink carnations mark the spot underneath a windowsill, lying on the dirt grounds of a housing project named after a peanut farmer. As with all gifts of flowers, there’s a story behind these, too.

Wrapped in plastic, the corpse lies buried in the soil beneath a thousand heartaches of working people. I passed by the other day, and there were the ghosts of Pepè and Margo, who lived a long time ago in a small apartment on the seventh floor.

Pepè and Margo were two of the original residents of the Carver Houses, trading one island for another when they moved from Puerto Rico to New York City in 1955. They met in an insane asylum where she cared for patients and he worked in the fields. When they arrived here, he worked as a laborer in factories and she worked as an aide in nursing homes.

He was small and thin, she was tall and plump and they were married for more than 50 years. “She used the black magic on me,” he explained. “And it’s still working!” They lived together for 15 years before they married and the only reason they married was to obtain the apartment as a legal couple. She called him viejo or old man and he called her “ma.”

“I feel very happy in this country,” he said. “We’ve been living in this country 40 or so years. But Puerto Rico is beautiful. I miss the wind, the sun. I was born in Puerto Rico and I am going to die here.”

Margo wanted to remain in Puerto Rico, feeling locked in the apartment. “I want to go back. I miss everything. I miss the outdoors.”

They spoke for each other. “Here she feels trapped inside,” Pepè said, “You can’t just go out. We go to the yard and look at the flowers. I plant here and the next day it’s dead. You can’t have plants here unless you have a house or you live on the first floor. And outside they are savages. It’s very noisy and they don’t respect.”

The death occurred at a time when the city was overrun with drug dealers sitting on benches, destroying the life and genealogy of the neighborhood. Pepè rode the subway on most days even as an old man, before the subways became more egalitarian. As a young man, he was scrutinized for his color and his pedigree along the subterranean trail beneath the surface and soul of the city.

Pepè was small enough to carry in his wife’s arms but feisty enough to hold his own against the neighborhood toughs. He and Margo lived in an apartment overlooking green wooden benches some cop told me were made in prison. To the left is a noisy playground and straight ahead is Madison Avenue. It isn’t exactly a straight path to Madison and then to Fifth; sometimes there’s a stop at another island called Riker’s.

“We raised our children in this building,” Pepè said. “We worked. We had the control to raise our kids with responsibilities. Why can’t the others do the same thing?”

The view from the windows and from their peephole was better than their old black-and-white television with rabbit-ear antennas. Outside, a young guy came to the aid of a woman being pummeled by a man. He tried to help her, she ran away and he got stabbed. A woman was killed when she went to answer her doorbell. She was shot looking through the door and her daughter was killed in the street. Pepè said the killers were looking for a guy because he sold drugs.

He looked out of the window at a police car pulling up on the sidewalk. “For me, the Police Department, they are wonderful. I never have problems. They try to do their job the best they can. If they tell me to move, I do.”

“There is no better neighborhood than this one,” Pepè declared. “It’s not too great, but I don’t care. It’s home. We have people in this neighborhood who don’t want to live clean. And at night, the teenagers don’t work. During the day, they sleep. Sometimes you have to blame the parents. We need more cops here. This morning, barking, barking and barking. I said enough with the barking dog. There is urine sprayed all over the elevator. Where are you going to stand?,” he asked. “The office takes good care of the building. People here don’t take care of it.”

In the overheated apartment of Pepè and Margo, there were no doors on their closets; contents were hidden by curtains whose bulging contents created large lumps. Their kitchen was small and crowded with the pots and pans of people who ate at home and didn’t bother going to restaurants. “I used to leave the door open when I cleaned the house,” Margo recalled. “No one used to bother us.”

Tiny, their chihuauha, slept in their bed. He was the only companion in the house; Pepè and Margo’s two sons were married with children who had their own children. Pepè carried him everywhere tucked under his arm like a football. Tiny’s legs were spindly and arthritic, his head large and oversized, his eyes too large and brown and partially unseeing, his ears hard of hearing—the four-legged version of Pepè. Once, I took a photograph of these doppelgangers and presented it to Pepè. He carried it everywhere. He trimmed the edges to a small square and that creased black-and-white portrait remained proof that they were a pair.

“Sometimes you don’t remember,” Pepè said of his age, which was 85. “Once I put my shoe in the refrigerator and I put my keys in the freezer.”

Tiny was the first to go, dying in the winter. Pepè slept with the photograph tucked inside of his pajama top. He wrapped Tiny in plastic wrap and gingerly placed him in the freezer for the winter, alongside the forgotten shoe and keys, ice cube trays and chickens. When spring came and the ground thawed, he enlisted his oldest son and the two of them shoveled the earth and buried the dog in the middle of the night under a hazy street lamp below his window. There were no cops around.

Pepè seemed smaller each time I visited him and he knew that old age and time were happening to him. On my last visit to see him, Margo said she had taken him to the hospital three times that month. “I don’t like to leave him,” she said.

No one really knows why but Pepè jumped, out of the window, the picture in hand, landing on Tiny’s grave seven floors below.

Pepè didn’t make the news. Maybe he would have by jumping from the George Washington Bridge or the Empire State Building, and his life, well, really his death, might be recalled and archived, even for a few lines. He was carried away in a black plastic body bag. That was his end.

I was the one who left the flowers, a small memorial to a life remembered. And, as I said, gifts of flowers have a story.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Customer Service, Delhi Style

Macy’s flagship store on 34th Street in Manhattan sits squately 160 or so blocks from my apartment, the equivalent of nearly eight miles, a $35 cab ride, a 25 cent telephone call, a four hour stroll, or a $2.00 subway ride. We share the same crowded and complex island. At this personable little shop, a furniture salesman calls me by my first name, thrilled that at least one wanderer has given him commission for the day and simply perhaps, because my credit is good. My careful research has finally netted me a couch, a large red leather one fashioned mostly in Italy to replace one that looks like several cats used it as a scratching post and with a large indentation in the center. I have no cats and I’m not that large.

My new couch landed in my living room, courtesy of two delivery men who attempted to shake me down for extra money. I live six flights up and only a narrow loveseat could make it into the elevator without trepidation. The extortion didn’t make it past a $20 bill in my wallet and I decided to contact Macy’s to complain. I dug up a Customer Service number on my receipt and dialed. I figured I would be reaching someone in the United States, like one of those ubiquitous call centers used by banks, and I might chat with a pleasant man or woman in a city like Boston or Florida or Arizona. Every once in a while I’m connected to an operator in New Jersey, although a Jersey accent might be shocking to the rest of the country. While I waited, a cordless telephone piped in American pop music into my ear as I wandered in circles around my apartment. I listened to four songs, including a glass shattering number by pop siren Mariah Carey.

A male voice interrupted the music and stopped the room from spinning.
“Macy’s. My name is Julius. How may I help you?”

His voice was distinctly Indian, with a carefully enunciated monotone that dragged each vowel out with military precision. In fact, it sounded like he was reading from a chart, with his professor carefully underlining each syllable with a wooden pointer.

“Oh, yeah, hi. I’m calling about my couch, you know, a sofa, and the delivery. I – by the way, where am I calling?”
Madam, I am located in New Delhi,” Julius answered. “How may I help you?”
“Is there anyone available in the United States?’ I gently queried, wondering what an office building in India looked like thousands of miles away, if he shopped at Macy’s, what wages he earned, and would anyone be able to understand my New York accent, let alone colloquiums like “yeah, so what’s the point?” and other phrases not dissected in their training manuals.

I mean, Macy’s is not that far from where I live. How do I reach someone at the 34th Street store? And — how did I wind up getting India?”
he repeated, not unkindly. “How may I help you?”
“My sofa was delivered and the drivers tried to shake me down for money,” I clumsily explained.
“Madam, it is not good to shake so much.”
I hung up the phone.

I didn’t have much better luck with AOL when I spoke to Chad, Norman, and Vince in India about how to get rid of my cookies. Cookies are things that store information on my computer, I think, not Nabisco snack items. My dial-up service wasn’t working properly and when I called for assistance, my quest for service began with a circuitous route from New York to New Delhi, then two cities in the Midwest whose names I’ve forgotten, Philippe in Canada, and then Ernie from the Philippines who resolved the problem. I need to clean my cache. Well, it seems like I need a passport, too.

Outsourcing to other countries has its limits. So I wondered what the dialogue would be like between Yankees Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra, who caught Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, and a customer service representative from India when this king of malaprops calls America Online for service on his computer.

Yeah. Hello? Hello? Is this thing working? Is anyone there? Thank you for calling AOL Tech Support. My name is Bob. You can call me by my first name. What is your name, please?
Hello? Is anyone home?
Yogi? Am I really speaking with a yogi?
Yeah. My name is Yogi. Can you help me with my computer? (background whisper: I’m on the telephone with a man who says he’s a yogi. Thank you so much for that information. What is your complete name, sir?
Berra. Yogi Berra.
Mr. Berra Yogi.
No, it’s the opposite way around. It’s Yo-gi Ber-ra.
Okay. Mr. Yogi. I am so excited to speak with a yogi. I will do my best to help you. Where are you calling from Mr. Yogi?
I’m calling you on my phone.
Where is your phone?
In my ear.
Ah. So you are calling from Ireland.
Ireland? Never been there. I’m calling you from New Jersey.
And where is Newj Ersey?
It’s right next to New York. Can you guys fix my computer?
Ah, New York. Perhaps you know my cousin, Dr. Patel?
I don’t know no Dr. Patel.
He drives a cab in New York City. He’s studying to be a medical doctor.
Ain’t that something. But what’s wrong with my computer?
Ah, so you are a Yogi with a computer.
I got a message from my grandson and I can’t turn this thing on.
Mr. Yogi, please tell me the name of your computer.
My computer doesn’t have a name. It’s just a computer.
I see. No name for your computer. Does it have the word Apple on it?
Yeah, I see the word Apple.
Mr. Yogi, press the button next to the Apple.
90% of this is pressing a button. The other 10% is pressing another button.
Mr. Yogi, what happens what you press the button?
The same thing that always happens. The computer turns on. You mean I have to call all the way to China for someone to tell me to turn on my computer?
Mr. Yogi, I am trying to help you. Is your computer on or is it shut down?
It’s ain’t shut down til it’s shut down.
What is your password?
Hey, who are you anyway? I never give out my signals.
Mr. Yogi, maybe you could meditate for a little while before we proceed.
I’m not on medication and what’s it your business, anyway?
Mr. Yogi, please click on the setup icon.
I’m clicking.
Do you see a box that says cache?
What did I do? Win something?
Mr. Yogi, first you must click on the box that says setup. Then another box opens up that says cache – c-a-c-h-e.
Oh, yeah. I see the cache. I’ve observed a lot by watching.
Look for the cookies.
Carmen! Do we have any cookies?
Mr. Yogi, we are not eating any cookies. We are removing them.
Carmen! Throw the cookies out. This way my computer will work.
Sir, these are not cookies to eat.
What is your name again?
My name is Bob. How can I help you with your AOL today?
Uh, Bob. First you tell me to find my cookies. Now you tell me to throw them out. What’s it gonna be?
Mr. Yogi, look at your computer.
I’m lookin’.
Do you see the word cookies?
Oh, yeah. I see the word cookies.
Click on the cookies.
Can I finish my chocolate chip one first?
Mr. Yogi, you may eat the cookie first.
Okay, I’m back.
Click on the cookie.
I can’t.
Mr. Yogi, why cannot you click on the cookie?
I just ate the cookie. I just told you that.
Click on the word cookie on the computer screen, Mr. Yogi.
I’m clicking, I’m clicking, and it clicked.
Mr. Yogi, do you see the box that says clean the cache?
The cache is clean.
Drag the cookies to the cache.
They are in the trash. Now you want me to get them out of the trash?
The computer cache. Do you see a globe?
Where am I gonna find a globe?
Look at the computer for a tiny, little blue globe and click.
Oh, yeah, I see it.
Click on that. And then go to the display tab.
Tab? What’s a tab?
It’s a little box and it says “empty cache now.” Do you see it?
I never saw it coming.
Now press the mouse and click.
Yep, okay. They are in the cache.
Mr. Yogi. Please now click.
I clicked. What’s next?
Mr. Yogi. Now you must restart your computer.
Okay. I’m restarting my computer.
I will wait while you restart your computer, Mr. Yogi from New York.
All right, Mr. Bob. My computer is back on again. It’s like déjà vu.
What is your view?
I’m sitting at my computer.
Is the computer turned on?
If I’m going to figure out how to use this, I’m not sure that we’re as smart as we think we could be.
Let me give you the reference number so you don’t have to explain things again if you have to call us back.

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No cows graze in Columbus, but did you see the unicorn?

I’ve been listening to people complain that Columbus, Ohio is too big.

Others complain about its reputation as a cow town.

I haven’t seen any cows.

But then again, I’m from New York. I’m not sure that I would recognize one.

I haven’t seen anyone wearing overalls Downtown, except me.

But Columbus is beginning to sound like New York City.

Cars head north or south on High Street with every window rolled down for cross-ventilation and the pounding beat of a stereo thundering out into the street. When someone drives by at night, the windows rattle and the walls vibrate.

In New York, these deafening car stereos are considered a mark of success by arrogant teen-agers, most of whom have never heard the smooth sounds of Frank Sinatra and couldn’t care less about James Thurber.

Once newly minted musicmobile, piloted by a young man who wouldn’t have heard three firetrucks wailing behind him, was so loud that I swear I saw the unicorn in the garden move.

Well, it’s not an actual unicorn.

The unicorn is a bronze statue in a lily garden across the street from Thurber House, 77 Jefferson Avenue, that celebrates one of Thurber’s best-known tales, A Unicorn in the Garden.

In the story, a man wakes up his wife to tell her that there’s a unicorn in the garden and it’s eating roses.

“The unicorn is a mythical beast,” she says.

She calls him a “booby” and tells him she will put him in the “booby hatch.” The wife calls the police and a psychiatrist, and when they enter the house, she says, “My husband saw a unicorn this morning.” They cart her off and ask the husband if he has seen a unicorn.

“Of course not,” he says. “The unicorn is a mythical beast.”

The husband lives happily ever after.

Now if this scenario were repeated in New York, it would take on a different twist altogether.

For one thing, most people don’t have gardens, so the closest thing would be a terrace. A Unicorn on the Terrace doesn’t quite have the same ring.

Rose don’t grow on terraces, so the unicorn would be eating a potted plant that couldn’t be identified or a leftover wooden dresser that one was meaning to throw out but couldn’t get out of the apartment.

When the wife calls the husband a booby, he would probably ask her to repeat it into a video camera so that he would have evidence for their divorce proceedings.

Psychiatrists don’t make house calls.

The police, arriving 45 minutes later with their guns drawn, would search the house for unicorn, going through closets and cabinets before filling out a missing-person report.

Animal-rights activists would complain that because the unicorn couldn’t be found, there must be a police cover-up.

There are plenty of boobies in New York.

I’m certain that there are plenty of boobies in Columbus who resemble Thurber’s people.

But they’re spread out, not packed into skyscraper apartment buildings as in New York. Walls are thin there, hallways and entranceways congested, and more people know your business than you think.

And they have no patience.

I’ve crossed streets in Columbus while 25 cars wait to turn. So far, no one has honked the horn, bellowed through the window, cursed at me or given me the finger.

In Manhattan, my foot wouldn’t even be off the curb before one, if not all, of the above had occurred.

People walk in New York City. Not necessarily by choice, but because it’s the only way to navigate through streets and around people.

I stopped at the mall in Columbus (we don’t have malls in New York City) and found at least a half-dozen shoe stores specializing in walking shoes.

But I rarely see anyone walking.

I’m looked at strangely as people toot their horns and ask me if I need a ride. Being sensible, I won’t accept a ride from a stranger.

So the rest of the world drives by with windows rolled up, air conditioning blowing and music going full blast, and I’ve got concrete under my feet.

I like the exercise, and it helps burn off those Buckeye Donuts.

People here aren’t as thin as in New York.

In New York, you pay more to eat less. There are women’s clothing shops that carry only sizes 6, 8, and 10. I figure I’d have to buy two of everything and sew them together.

In Columbus, however, women have hips, and there are plenty of size 12s on the rack.

There’s less makeup, too.

In my neighborhood, a trip to the supermarket to buy dog food necessitates wearing at least mascara, foundation, concealer, eye shadow, blush, and lipstick.

I haven’t seen too much lipstick on line at Kroger.

It really comes down to one thing: New Yorkers think vertically, Ohioans horizontally.

Developers spread out from Columbus, swallowing farms and towns.

In New York, developers gobble up sun and sky.

People think differently when they’re stacked on top of each other.

You can be anonymous in New York, but you really can’t get away from anyone. In Central Park, you can’t really lie under a tree and meditate. You could doze off and find your wallet and shoes missing. Or worse.

Twenty minutes out of Columbus, you can find some woods that a bulldozer hasn’t touched – yet.

Even Downtown, you can get away from civilization, if only for a moment.

I walked through Deaf School Park and looked at the shrubbery. A New Yorker wouldn’t appreciate the topiary garden. I figured that someone must have had a lot of time on his hands.

Next to these elegantly sculpted Parisian women lay a (real) man sleeping on top of a picnic table, his arms folded over his ample middle, a can of beer lying on its side.

That’s a familiar sight at home.

A couple from Columbus described themselves as common folk.

In New York, you describe yourself as type A or type B, give your astrological sign and generally end the conversation with “I have an appointment with my therapist.”

I wouldn’t say that things are slow here in Columbus, but one evening I hit a particularly rough spot. So I spent the night reading the telephone directory.

The Columbus telephone book is a rather unusual one. I’ve never seen so many names that are also nouns and adjectives.

There are Blues, Greens, Blacks, Whites, Browns, Gray, and a Maroon.

I found a Yin and a Yang, a Tootles and a Zook, more than one Rambo, Farmers and Holsteins, a Cowman, Lamb, Hogg, and a Steer.

It’s a book fill of Queens, Princes, Jesters, Bishops, Damsels, a Shah, a Munster, a few Looneys, Cranks and Crooks.

You can search for a Daft, a Bobo that’s Boffo and go out with a Bang.

There are Lemons and Limes, a Missouri and a Nebraska, Kings and Kongs, Friend and Foe, a Hobo with a few Hicks, a Ding and a Dong with a few Frisbys tossed around for Good Luck.

You can Hoot at Fate and Ho and Ha at an Idol.

Man, Gents, Pop, Daughters, Cousins, Dames, a Bridgegroom and a Groom could be Wedd and then have a Fling with a Heimlich and Gallop with Fickle Fowls.

You can Yo and Yep, Woo a Tweet and a Twitty, and Zapp a Zag.

I didn’t find any Cows in Columbus.

But I found a few Moos.

But let’s not Dilley Dalley.

I think there’s a unicorn on my terrace.

Originally published in The Columbus Dispatch. Arlene Schulman lived in Columbus, Ohio for a summer as journalist-in-residence at the Thurber House.

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Arlene's 13 Point Writing Manifesto

  1. The time to write is NOW.

  2. Write every day.

  3. Only cooking utensils belong in the kitchen drawer - not your writing.

  4. Take a pen and notebook with you or use a PDA to write down your thoughts, ideas or observations. You never know when a creative thought will come to you.

  5. Read. Watch films. Listen to music.

  6. You never know what may inspire you so leave yourself open.

  7. Don't make excuses for not finding the time.

  8. It's okay to make mistakes.

  9. Write about subjects that inspire you.

  10. Banish cynicism and negativity.

  11. Be encouraging to others. You never know when you may need their support.

  12. Use your five senses - and your sixth - to find your voice.

  13. A little humility goes a long way - and so does humor!

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Monday, December 27, 2010

Book Excerpt: Cop on the Beat

Cop on the Beat: Officer Steven Mayfield in New York City

Written and Photographed by Arlene Schulman
Published by Dutton

His shoes are flawlessly shined, his shirt is precisely ironed and neatly tucked in, his shield gleams, and the creases in his dark blue pants stand so razor sharp they look dangerous. His paces from a cautious walk to a brisk run, through sheets of rain, mounds of snow, and the glare of a hot sun. His hat, its brim neatly dusted, usually conceals the top half of his eyes, making him a bit mysterious. His six-foot-three, 235 pound frames imposes but doesn't threaten. At night, he moves quietly among the dark shadows of trees and buildings, stepping out into the soft light of street lamps and disappearing back into the darkness. He moves so stealthily that local residents have dubbed him "the Shadow." But at the moment, something suspicious has caught the eye of New York City police officer Steven Mayfield, and he freezes.

Officer Mayfield is trained to react to emergencies, and now, his first day back at work after two days off, his instincts warn him to take action. He can handle this alone, but he cannot continue his patrol until this mall but offensive situation is quickly dealt with.

Mayfield picks a piece of lint off his dark blue uniform shirt. "Damn!" he groans. "Where did this come from?" He runs his hands over his shirt to be certain that the lint hasn't multiplied, and satisfied that he is spotless again, he continues his walking patrol of his beat.

It's the third hour of his tour, which began at four this Tuesday afternoon. He will finish just after midnight. Officer Mayfield is a beat cop. Though he sometimes patrols in a car with a partner, he usually works alone, walking or cycling the streets of the Upper Manhattan neighborhoods of Washington Heights and Inwood. Mayfield carries a gun, a badge, a police radio, a flashlight, a nightstick, and handcuffs. They represent law and order in their small piece of New York City.

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Book Excerpt: RFK: Promise for the Future

Robert F. Kennedy: Promise for the Future

Written by Arlene Schulman
Published by Facts on File

Kennedy listened to people whose voices were rarely heard - poor blacks and whites, people without jobs, farmers, Indians on reservations suffering from alcoholism, Mexican-American migrant workers, college students protesting against the Vietnam War, Hispanics living in public housing projects, the children of the slums. "Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured," he said, quoting the writer Albert Camus. "But we can reduce the number of tortured children. And if you believers don't help us, who else in the world can help us do this?"

In a speech in California, he said, "Our brave young men are dying in the swamps of Southeast Asia. Which one of them might have written a poem? Which one of them might have cured cancer? Which one of them might have played in the World Series or given us the gift of laughter from the stage or helped build a bridge or a university? It is our responsibility to let these men live. . .It is indecent if they die because of the empty vanity of our country."

Students chanted, cheered, and stamped their feet. Priests and nuns who wore Kennedy bumper stickers across their cornets turned out and waved to him as he sat on the hood of the car. Hundreds of people walked or ran alongside of his convertible. People waited for hours to catch a glimpse of him or to touch him.

"I found that they wanted not to just to touch a celebrity; they wanted to convey their feelings to him, and he accepted it for that," said his security man, Bill Barry.

Kennedy did not believe in security. "We can't have that kind of country - where the President of the United States is afraid to go among the people. I won't ride around in an armored car," he said. "If anyone wants to kill me, it won't be difficult." He said that there were no guarantees against assassination. "You've just got to give yourself to the people and to trust them, adn from then on. . .either (luck is) with you or it isn't. I am pretty sure there'll be an attempt on my life sooner or later. Not so much for political reasons," he sadded, "Plain nuttiness, that's all."

The poet Robert Lowell recalled that "he felt he was doomed, and you knew that he felt that. . . He knew that , and he had no middle course possible to him."


Book Excerpt: Muhammad Ali: Champion

Muhammad Ali: Champion

Written by Arlene Schulman
Published by Lerner Publications

They would sit at night, and he would tell her that he was going to be the champion of the world. In their ramshackle house in Louisville, Kentucky, when the sun had set and the lights were out, 12-year-old Cassius Clay told his mother of his dream. He would knock out opponents one by one, raise his hands in victory as the ring announcer introduced him as the new world champion, and become rich and famous.

"One night I heard (heavyweight champion) Rocky Marciano fighting on the radio," he said. "It sounded so big and powerful and exciting."

Cassius Marcellus Clay was born on January 17, 1942 in Louisville. The first of two sons born to Odessa Clay and Cassius Clay Sr., Cassius Jr. demonstrated his fondness for attention even at an early age. Mrs. Clay, exhausted from a difficult delivery, could hear her young son cry and scream and wake up the other babies in the hospital.

"Gee-gee, gee-gee," were Cassius's first words, his mother said. He later claimed he was trying to say "Golden Gloves", the name of a prestigious national boxing tournament that he won twice as a teenager. "When he was a child, he never sat still," his mother recalled. "He walked and talked before his time."

Black Louisville was divided into three sections - East End, the California area, and West End, where the Clays lived. Like most of the families in the neighborhood, they were poor. The family car was always at least 10 years old with worn-out tires. The house always needed painting. The front porch sagged, and during rainy weather, water leaked through the roof and walls. Many of the children's clothes were secondhand. Once in while, the Clays were able to afford a new shirt or a new pair of pants for Cassius and his younger brother, Rudy - but not often.

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Book Excerpt: T.J.'s Story

T.J.'s Story: A Book about a Boy Who is Blind

Text and Photographs by Arlene Schulman
Published by Lerner Publications

My name is T.J. Olsen. You can see me, but I can't see you. That's because I'm blind.

People who are blind can see very little or nothing at all. Some people are born blind. Others lose their sight when they get older because of illnesses such as glaucoma and diabetes. I was born with a disease called retinoblastoma. It's a kind of cancer. It affects babies when they're born.

When I was 11 months old, doctors had to do surgery to get rid of the cancer. They removed my eyes. Instead of real eyes, I have plastic ones. Most people don't know that I'm blind until they see me with my cane. It's white and red and it looks like a walking stick.

Your eyes work like a camera. There is a lens at the front of each eye. The lends focuses on what you're seeing. The colored part of the eye, called the iris, opens and closes to let in the right amount of light. At the back of the eye is the retina. It's like the film in a camera. It records a picture of what you see.

Many people wear eyeglasses because their eyes don't work perfectly. They may not be able to see things far away or close up very well. Normal eyeglasses aren't enough for people who are visually impaired or blind. Their eyesight cannot be corrected with regular eyeglasses.

People who are visually impaired or blind may be able to see some things, like shapes or light and dark objects or very large things. In the United States, moe than a million people are blind.

Book Excerpt: Carmine's Story

Carmine's Story: A Book about a Boy Living with AIDS

Text and Photographs by Arlene Schulman
Published by Lerner Publications

My name is Carmine. I'm ten years old, and I have AIDS.

My mother had AIDS, too. Her name was Florence. She died when I was a year and three months old. I don't really remember her. But sometimes when the wind blows the front door open, I say that it's my mother.

I don't know who my father is. My mother never told anyone, not even her mother. We think he might have been from Puerto Rico, but we're not sure. Wherever he is, he doesn't know me.

My grandmother, Kay, told me that my mother was her favorite. She was fun and she liked to talk and she could make friends with anybody. Then she met a man - maybe it was my father - who was using drugs. She started to use drugs, too. I don't know why. I wish I could ask her.

My mother used a drug called heroin before I was born. She injected it into her body with needles. She and her boyfriend shared their needles with other people, and one of them must have had AIDS. That's how I think my mother got the disease.

When my mother found out she was going to have a baby, she stopped using drugs right away. She wanted to be a good mom. But it was too late. The AIDS virus had already passed from her to me.

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The Solitary Shopper

I am one of those people to whom many stories are told.

From dusty tales of Mexican laundry folders who drink too much on Saturday nights to one very nervous cop aiming his gun at me as I exited my apartment to dispose of recyclables, to my traveling companions on overstuffed M100 buses, to under appreciated and aggravated secretaries, public school teachers with unruly students, to Wall Street workers coming off an exhilarating trade, the shopping bag of disclosure is open and ready for unpacking.

It happens most often while I shop. From tomatoes to turtlenecks, the hordes corner me like some sort of exalted celebrity when I’m preoccupied with finding the right size, shape or shoe. Dapper shoe salesmen complain about women who spend their weekends being waited on hand and well, feet, and who send these hard working men scurrying to the storeroom; chubby cashiers at Target, Saks and Duane Reade point out their swollen ankles; and the chic who shop at the Gap and Henri Bendel invite me into the operating room as they describe gallbladder and appendix removals. I’ve listened to tales of cheating boyfriends, sloppy husbands and dirty landlords from the minions who purchase and pander at Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s; epics reveal painful shoes, poor diet, bad bosses, and badder day as my bunions and I stand on line to pay in the world’s most remote shop or tugging on a too small skirt in a dressing room separated from the sales floor by a curtain. I keep thinking that if I set up a series of couches near cash registers I can get the chats and complaints over all at once.

Move over, Dr. Phil. I’m hanging out my shingle for retail therapy.

So here I am, the queen of sound bite confessions. The fascination of speaking with me is no more evident than alongside of sales racks from Manhattan to Minneapolis, and in front of cash registers from 7-Eleven to Saks Fifth Avenue. And nowhere is my expertise more in evidence and my patience tested than when I shop at Lord & Taylor, a calmer, more soothing shopping experience without the hordes and gaggles of gigglers, fluorescent lights, and the hamster mazes of aisles of its more flamboyant sister, Macy’s.

The lineage of women among the sales racks can be traced back, I’m convinced, to the early days of hunters and gathers. Women waved goodbye while their mates went after dinner, and this communal commiserating, companionship and co-parenting kept the community alive. And thus began the origins of the group shop. I know there’s a shopping bag from the Ice Age hidden deep in the core of our planet just waiting to be carbon dated.

In the evolution of women, torched bras and nylon stockings have been replaced by Spanx, spandex, and credit cards. Women still gather but they also hunt; two or three women in a department store with big game in sight, from Manolos to sequins to sassy skirts and scarves, descend on department and specialty stores everywhere in the world. This portion of Darwin’s evolutionary theory is still with us. A few women, like myself, mutate from this genetic claim and strike out on our own to go shopping. Others require my validation.

How do I look?
How does this make me look?
I’m a size 14 and this dress is a size 6. Do I look good or what?

My intersection with the shopping sisterhood creates a Venn diagram of dialogue to the point where I’ve considered wearing a wig and glasses and hiring a bodyguard. Let me serve up a taste of my shopping life.

Shopping can be divided into several categories: in the name of bargains, camaraderie, the boredom pack, the curiosity group, “I wonder what size I am now” collection, the triage trio, the demanding duo, or let’s get it over with, I can’t stand the crowds for another minute – and let’s face it, shopping with friends can be a frightening phenomenon. When I shop with friends, I buy clothing I would never, in my wildest dreams, consider bringing home, like the plaid linen dirndl skirt or grape poncho with tassels. A straight line can be drawn from the manufacturer, to the shop, to my wallet and to my closet and then slam dunked into the thrift store donation bin.

So, here I am, the solitary shopper, armed with coupons and credit cards, a bottle of tap water, toothbrush, and toothpaste as I make my descent into Lord & Taylor on a foraging mission to supplement my collection of blue jeans and t-shirts with a few snappy skirts and tops.  Doors swing open at ten sharp at the Fifth Avenue flagship store. Like a prizefighter prepared for swift punches, dubious ones, and a knockout blow, I have trained for the markdown, the misplaced belt, the search for the right size, and the dedication to come out a champion with more than a few dollars saved. Down for the count means nothing fits and I’m waved out of the store with no shopping bags. For the record, this has only happened once and only because I sailed through the shoe department to check on winter boots which hadn’t yet arrived.
Three minutes into my adventure, I am spotted, much like Brad or Angelina attempting to blend with the crowd.

It began on the escalator, next to the sign indicating that we have ascended to the third floor.

“Is this the fifth floor?” Two woman with over processed blond hair and Bermuda shorts inquire.

I give this some thought.

“Could be,” an answer designed to throw them off my trail and to discourage any lingering conversation. I rappelled to the fifth floor and spotted a familiar sign, 40% off, which means that swiping the bar code on my coupons would net me an additional 20% off. I’m cookin’.

Racks overflow with marked down Ralph Lauren, Tommy Bahama, Eileen Fisher, Lord & Taylor’s house brand, Kate Hill, Liz Claiborne and the labels of others who cloak and cover our bodies from a size 0 to a size 24 plus, from extra small to three times as large. A number of women like me envision themselves a lot smaller, holding up what should fit and then being disappointed. You can blame it on the manufacturer for poor sizing but a three way mirrors holds no illusions.

My shopping companions poked through the racks and a few poked me with their purses. Now, mind you, the floor was loaded with idle saleswomen. I was hoping to leave via early decision but not today.

“What do you think of this color?,” asked one woman who looks like a model, holding up a yellowish-brown sweater with orange stripes.

“I’ve never seen this shade before,” I admitted.

“How much is this with markdown? Is this too much for me to pay,” a woman carrying a briefcase checks in, holding up a Ralph Lauren skirt with the priced mowed down from $200 to $119.

“I think it’s worth it,” I replied. Well, not really, but a little encouragement can go a long way.

“What do you think my husband would say?” asked another woman, already wielding enough shopping bags to incite a hernia, and armed with a vertical valance attached to a denim skirt.

“I think he’d love it,” I offered with conviction; although I’d never met the man, I was convinced he would be overwhelmed.

“I just had a tummy tuck. Do you think I can fit into this?,” inquired an older woman with a flat stomach but enormous hips, thrusting a pair of hip huggers at me.I had to think about this one.

“Why not give it a try?,” I suggested diplomatically.

“Do you think this sweater will match my skirt that’s hanging in my closet at home?,” demanded one woman with a large perm and even larger purse.


The floor seemed to close in on me.

“Where’s the ladies room?,” demanded a woman in a pink tracksuit (they seem to be everywhere).

“By the elevator but not on the 6th floor,” I answered mechanically, digging into my purse for my water.

“Can you zip me up?,” asks one gray haired woman with her back hanging out of a white blouse.

I put down my water.

“You may want to inhale,” I noted. “And go back into the dressing room.”

After inching my way toward the center aisle, I was almost free.

“I’m going to a wedding. Do you think the bride’s mother will like this? She’s really quite particular,” wonders one woman holding up a black and white dotted dress.

“She’ll love it,” I yelled, waving my water.

“Why are you wearing that?”

Two women stopped me, looking at my denim blouse with disdain. They may have noticed that it’s wrinkled and has white stain from toothpaste but I can’t be certain.

“When a gun is pointed, I’ll put on anything,” I snarled.

I slip into an empty dressing room and lock myself in. I grunt and groan getting in and out of too tight blouse that gets stuck under my armpits and cuts off my circulation. It’s a bit like wrestling with a bear until it finally pops off and I pop out, able to catch my breath again. I look around. There I am, at all angles. My hair appears to be windswept in the airless cubicle and, is my behind really that large? A suspicious mole comes off in my hands; it’s just an M&M from an earlier snack.  I tune in to the sisterhood.

These shorts are gorgeous, comes from the room to my right.
Mom, why are you buying that? cries a embarrassed teenage voice that could have been my own from years ago.
Because I want to.
I don’t want to be seen with you wearing that.
Fine. Don’t look then.

There’s a rap on my white shutter-like door. Doorbells and a peephole, anyone?

“Do you think this costs too much?,” inquires an older woman with glasses holding a poodle and a v-neck t-shirt with a $49 price stag.

“Yes,” I said. “ff you have to ask.”

“Does this make me look fat?,” demands a woman who says she’s a nurse. She turns around twice in a pleated skirt that makes it look like there’s air under her skirt. But those are her hips.

“What about my hips?” She smoothed down the pleats but they don’t move.

“What about them?” I raised my eyebrows.

After closing the door and putting on my own clothes, a Ralph Lauren sweater tossed over my head.

The petites are one floor up and I quickly ducked behind three slinky mannequins. A couple of women haven’t discovered me - yet. Both petite, with white hair, overdressed for a day out shopping, and smelling of mothballs, stale perfumes, and general decay, they push their way through jumbled racks of marked down clothing.

“It isn’t beautiful?” cooed the taller of the two, holding up a dirt colored sweater. “It was made just for you.”

After following them for about 20 minutes, I hit the lottery. A black skirt made of silk and wool carried a price tag of $86 down to $49.97. I quickly did the math – 40% off would be close to $25 minus an additional 20% off would be about $20. Or so I thought. The friendly saleswomen looked at me over her glasses and scanned in the tag. The skirt was reduced to $9.56 not counting the 40% off and 20% discount coupon. My grand purchase accumulated to $3.99. The saleswomen said that her son just graduated from college and that someone must have coded the tag improperly in the computer. This never happens to me.

A woman carrying four bags stopped me.

“How do I look in this?,” she demanded

I looked her over and asked her to turn around. And turn around the other way. And the other way. She started to topple, her black and white polka dot dressed swirling in a hypnotic pattern.

“I’ve never seen you look better,” I gushed. “I would buy two.”

Time to move on.

A shopper came my way on the third floor.

“What’s that thing?,” she asked, pointing to the scanner near the sale priced Dana Buchman outfits.

“It checks radioactivity.”

I hustled on another dressing to try on a very expensive skirt by Ellen Tracy. The dressing room was larger than my living room. I tossed my jeans onto the upholstered chair, dropped my handbag on the floor, draped my blouse on the table, and examined my cellulite from all angles.

I bought the skirt with my coupons.

I have yet to wear it.

My day is almost over. The few men I’ve seen shop early and leave furtively even when they are in the men’s department. I decided to check out the handbags. I wasn’t in the world of purses, clutches, and carryalls more than five minutes when three saleswomen asked me if I needed help. I began to get annoyed.

My friend, Ruth, told me that I should go shopping in dark glasses or with an entourage to throw off the scent from the sisterhood. On my next visit, I wore my hair in a ponytail and a t-shirt with hood. It didn’t help.

One woman confronted me.

“How do I find the sizes?,” she asked.

“Look for S-M-L-XL,” I growled. “Those are clues.”

An older woman leaned against the racks. I gently tilted her so that she stood upright with her cane.

I prepared myself for the rest, as they waved clothes at me from one end of the store to the other.

How does this look on me?
This is the most fabulous thing I’ve even seen you in. Run to the register before someone else picks it up.
Does emerald green go with red?
bsolutely! Go stand next to the elves.
Does this make me look young?
y at least 30 years.

Ms. Jones, one of the saleswomen on the 5th floor, spotted me in my disguise. My ruse was up.

“What do you think of this jacket?” I held up a blue Tommy Bahama cotton jacket.

“Fabulous.” she whispered. “You couldn’t have made a better choice.”

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Book Excerpt: 23rd Precinct: The Job

23rd Precinct: The Job

Written and Photographed by Arlene Schulman
Published by Soho Press

"Being a cop is a culture, it's a way of life. You did nothing before. You have no time for a fuckin' schedule. Your life is this job. You become the culture," insists Sergeant Charlie Columbo. "I can walk down the street in any neighborhood and people say 'Here comes a fuckin' pig.' A lot of young kids don't have what it takes to become a cop. I'm a cop. You live it, breathe it, you fuckin' bleed it. Intelligence is a rarity on this job. You need adrenaline and excitement. Once in a blue moon, you'll get it.

"There isn't a guy on this job with fuckin' time who doesn't need a psychiatrist. The Job doesn't want to recognize what happens to us." Sergeant Columbo pauses to light a cigarette. "Most cops are crazy. If you weren't when you come on, you become crazy. The first person through that door is me. No one's getting hurt except me. It's my responsibility. It's a combination of responsibility and worthlessness.

"I'm not going to let someone with three years (on the job) get killed, or someone with four kids. I know that if I go through the door first, that everyone behind me will be okay. On the job I've had a concussion and broke my leg twice. They can't fuckin' kill me. I'll die from smoking."

The 23rd Precinct stationhouse was built on 102nd Street between Lexington Avenue and Third Avenue, in Manhattan, in the 1970s as a combination police station and firehouse. No matter how many times the cleaner sweeps, disinfects, and polishes, the place never looks clean. And when a group of junkies is brought in by Narcotics, the air becomes foul with body odor that permeates the first floor and foyer.

"Hey, we got a ripe one in here!" shouts the desk sergeant, who lights a cigar to counter the odor. Although smoking is technically forbidden inside a city building, no one complains, even cops with asthma.

A neatly dressed fiftyish Hispanic man in a gray suit, with too-long cuffs and a matching fedora, is standing at the complaint window, complaining that neighborhood kids stuck their tongues out at him. "Why don't you stick your tongue out at them?," suggests Officer Miranda Mays, raising her eyebrows.

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Book Excerpt: The Prizefighters

The Prizefighters: An Intimate Look at Champions and Contenders

Written and Photographed by Arlene Schulman
Introduction by Budd Schulberg
Published by Lyons & Burford Press

The wolf loses his teeth but not his inclinations.
- Spanish Proverb

329 stitches

11 broken noses

2 broken cheekbones

8 cracked ribs

The stigmata of sixteen years in boxing are retold in the face of Chuck Wepner. From the beginning, he was marked. He fought Sonny Liston - and lost - in Liston's last bout, six months before Liston was mysteriously found dead. That bout gave Wepner 72 stitches, a broken nose, and a broken left cheekbone. "These were the kinds of guys that I was fighting," Wepner said without apology. "Why?" he repeated, his eyes searching around his living room filled with plaques and trophies. "Because I liked it."

They were born to become prizefighters and nothing else.

"I was born to fight," said Roberto Duran. "I don't know what else to do."

The best become legends, others legendary; some remain contenders or dilettantes - just a name under someone else's record. Their styles in the ring are as different as their origins and personalities. To study them is to see portraits of flattened noses and scar tissue, strong necks bearing proud heads, eyes that have seen victory, endured defeat, and, outside the ring, often look gentle, intelligent, whimsical, or tired, eyes, that sparkle with humor or are dull with disappointment. Features change over time. Evander Holyfield's handsome face has flattened itself in some spots and become lumpy in others. "Boxing's a rough sport," Muhammad Ali once said. "After every fight I rush to the mirror to make sure I'm still presentable. A lot of boxers' features change," he added, "when I fight 'em." The best physiques - whether large like Holyfield or small, like Michael Carbajal - look like sculpture, carved muscles in perfect proportion. And there is an aura about a man who knows that he is the best in the world.

A loud and persuasive voice shouts to them to stick their hands into a pair of sweaty gloves, to learn the basic techniques of boxing, to prove their skills against others, to compete, to win, to get out of the neighborhood, to become a champion. Some fight in the streetss, in school, at home, in prison; others hold it inside. Brother may follow brother, like Michael and Leon Spinks; a father may show off rusty skills to his son, like Nick Barbella to Rocky Graziano; and even a mother may instruct her son, like the light heavyweight Egerton Marcus, whose mother learned to box as a teenager in her native Guyana. Sometimes they find their way into the ring by chance.

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Saturday, December 04, 2010

Matisyahu in Concert at Yeshiva University, Moshav Band Opening Act

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