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Body Parts (from NY Chronicles 2001)

Sunday was semi-sunny in spots, Memorial Weekend, Loisaida Day on Avenue C, the day you’re proud to be a Puerto Rican. There were squeals of happy children on the endless ferris wheel and a really good salsa band was playing, gift from Councilwoman Margarita López, who was there dancing, a short, peppery lesbian wearing a baseball cap to show the people that, as their leader, she can get down among them. What great rhythms! Revelers danced and the crowds strolled on the lookout for sweet fried plantains, ensalada de bacalao and piña colodas. As an ambassador for La Plaza, I was out in the park seeing that it was open and inviting. There was a feel of distant rain that wasn’t going to come. It had already rained enough and the lawn, which had had dry spots, was fresh and green with welcome. I schmoozed with Rosie Mendez, the District Leader, and Detective Jaime Hernandez from the Ninth Precinct. A neighbor, fellow writer named Geoffrey, said hello and happily told me that he loved my novel. He laughed and looked at me. “I can’t believe you’re gay. Your description of women turns me on so much that I now read your book to masturbate. I just flip through the pages,” he said throwing me off guard, flattered and amazed, suddenly thinking about sex. I tell Geoffrey, “I thought you had a girlfriend.” “I do, but one pair of breasts isn’t enough,” he confides, smiling impishly beneath the overhanging willow boughs.

Margarita López interrupts us, about to give a speech on the steps of Alpha Video. The band is silent and the crowd, that was drawn to dance and move, begins to applaud and I applaud too. Margarita is the first council person to support La Plaza. The last council person, Antonio Pagan, was a developer. He warned us that if we continued to defend the park, he’d see to it that we received “a fiery reception on Avenue C.”  I’d always assumed Antonio meant to have us shot. It was a little over a decade ago that Antonio Pagan on the steps of Alpha Video told me that Loisaida Day was only for Puerto Ricans. I said, “Antonio, you’re a racist.”  He told me, “Yes, I am.” Now on the very same steps my ally, Margarita López, is asking us to remember those who fought to defend our country, which included Puerto Rican men and women, the same Puerto Ricans under attack now when the US Navy bombs the island of Vieques. Angrily Margarita shakes her fist: “Get the US Navy out of Vieques! President Bush, stop bombing Puerto Rico!” The crowd cheers. The shouts used to be louder. The Puerto Rican population has diminished. There are more Mexicans now and many of the bodegas are owned by Muslims who have changed them into other businesses. You can’t throw a stone without it going through the window of some new trendy bistro. Where have all the Puerto Ricans gone? Back to Puerto Rico I suppose or off to the suburbs. Well, I shout too: “US Navy out of Vieques!” The flutes and instruments of percussion begin to inundate the air with sound strong enough to move the hips and buttocks.

I attended a seminar last Monday on the brain and child development. A lot goes on between the age of one and three: the child that’s father to the man is born. Not long ago Rumanian orphan babies under some form of idiot communism were not allowed to be hugged or held or loved. These children grew huge dark spaces behind their frontal lobes where empathy is supposed to form. How sad that slide of the Rumanian orphan’s brain with dark shadows where love should have been. I suppose someone like Timothy McVeigh has those dark shadows there. Stimulating affection and personal attention are what make kids loving and bright. I did not know when babies mumble they are making every sound of the human language, including the click noises from Africa. But the baby hears what is said around it and that’s what the baby starts to speak, while its parents don’t recognize sounds alien to them and respond to the sounds they make. Thus a baby born in Lititz, Pennsylvania will speak English with a Pennsylvania Dutch accent, not Swahili or French. !Ay Papi! ¡Ay Mami! Mon père. Ma mère. Mes enfants. What makes a Puerto Rican Puerto Rican? What makes a Bengali Bengali? Outside there’s distant lightning and after silence rolling thunder.

What was the first thing that ever turned you on? My first erotic experience was on the printed page, pre-pubescent, in the Brothers Grimm, a tale about some princes who bathe in a stream, who are turned into swans by a witch. At the age of seven the description of young men’s arms and legs becoming feathers, mouths beaks, elongated white necks and wings outspread made me innocently phallic. About that time, my father took me to see Ulysses with Kirk Douglas and when the witch Circe changed the men into pigs that had the same effect. Did my early eroticism with metaphoric myths later lead to my bachelor’s degree in Latin and Greek? The tale of Apollo pursuing Daphne as she turns into limbs of leaves, inspired me as a young man in my early twenties on a foggy morning in a forest tripping on acid to try to make love to a tree, which seemed to emanate with the presence of an inviting nymph. Helplessly I embraced the unrequiting trunk whose bark was ready to bleed raw any genitals insane enough to rub against it. The wood nymph fled and I, hallucinating, scratched and wiser, dressed again, a lovely immortal idea a ridiculous mortal fact. I just found Daphne in Book One of The Metamorphoses, same place she was two thousand years ago. Outside right now the willow does look pretty sexy over there in La Plaza with birds singing in, as Ovid would say, its long flowing hair:

Vix prece finita torpor gravis occupat artus,
mollia cinguntur tenui praecordia libro,
in frondem crines, in ramos bracchia crescunt,
per modo tam velox pigris radicibus haeret,
ora cacumen habet: remanet nitor unus in illa.
Hanc quoque Phoebus amat positaque in stipite dextra,
sentit adhuc trepidare novo sub cortice pectus
conplexusque suis ramos ut membra lacertis
oscula dat ligno; refugit tamen oscula lignum.

Scarcely was her prayer finished when torpor
filled her limbs and bark grew over her soft parts.
Her hair turns into leaves and branches sprout
out of her arms. Her quick foot stands still
rooted, her head the tree top. Only her beauty
remains shining. Phoebus, unable to stop kissing
feels her heart inside the trunk and holds her tight
as if, like arms, the branches embraced him
kissing the wood, the wood not kissing him.

It’s Tuesday, a little after noon. I’m not at my computer, but write with pen and notebook by the East River, the day overcast with a silver reflection on the far off Statue of Liberty beyond the Brooklyn Bridge. The same old wobbly jogger who used to jog by me last year has just jogged by again. Some things haven’t changed. Yet as I rode I could see that part of the macadam, having caved in over the winter, was barricaded for me to detour until it’s patched over again in endless reparation. Where land meets sea, people sail by on roller blades as well as ships, and the tree on the bank surges and raises its roots through the pavement in rivulets making for a bumpy ride when I ride over them.

I just came from La Plaza where I planted marigolds with kids from the day care Sheltering Arms. First we looked for the frog at the fish pond, but the frog could not be found. The children in a growing loud chorus called, “Ribbit! Ribbit! Ribbit!” with their peering faces reflected over the waterlily surface. The wise frog thought it best to stay hidden. The children cannot believe when the fish food is poured and a golden carp comes floating up out of the gloom, then look! There’s a black fish, a minnow! And it’s not a cartoon or a book, but life itself rising up. I planted with five kids at a time while their classmates played off in the distance. I told them, “When we dig up the dirt, that helps the earth to breathe. The earth is alive just like we are. When the earthworms make tunnels through the ground that helps the earth breathe oxygen. Don’t ever hurt or be afraid of worms. Worms are really good.” Before we plant, I have them pour water into the holes and show them the white hairlike roots of the unpotted marigold. “We have mouths to eat and drink. The plant has roots.” One boy, up on his stuff, informs me that the marigold’s leaf will get energy from the sun. He really knows what he’s talking about and I say, “Yes, that’s very good. The leaf breathes just like us.” I hold the dangling marigold in the hole while each child puts a shovel full of dirt around finally to pat it down with their flat quick hands. Young shoots of peppermint already grow over the garden’s brick edge. I pinch off a leaf and show it to them. “Do you know what this is?” I put it in my mouth as they, unbelieving, watch. “Yum, it’s peppermint. People eat this to make their breath fresh. Does anyone want to chew some?” They don’t, except one girl who, unable to contain her curious self, shoots her hand up. I hand her a leaf that she, without hesitation, gleefully eats. Immediately two of her mates want some. I give them each a leaf and tell those still holding back that if they want, I’ll give them a leaf to smell, but not to eat, if they don’t want. They all do want to smell and, as soon as they do, open their mouths. In the leaves go. All smiles.

La Carne es el Angel Flesh is the angel
que bate sus alas …..that beats its wings

Juan Ramón Jiménez

Flowers in La Plaza

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