In my words, January 7 – 13

This morning things return to normal; break is over: time to teach. It’s early now; well not so early, a little after seven. I just woke Akram up with a cup of coffee, black with sugar, which he’s drinking leaning back into the pillows looking out the window whose blinds and shades I’ve lifted letting in La Plaza, the park across the street, whose American Linden, too tall for its own good uprooted by Hurricane Sandy, is leaning against another waiting to be cut down by the city. Further over the rooftops into southern Manhattan the new World Trade Center slowly rises on the horizon metallic and shining with the sun over Brooklyn and the East River reflecting the approaching day.

Whoops! I almost burned the oatmeal and stirred it with its raisins scorching on the pan’s hot bottom adding a little more water as I did. Never write and cook at the same time; you’re asking for trouble; rest assured something will burn and what’s being written interrupted. I’m writing and frying onions, green and jalapeño peppers for an egg (beaten but yet to be stirred in) sandwich Akram will eat for lunch at the NYU Library studying for his last doctor’s exam. Getting ready takes coordination, many moments, many movements working in one direction: Akram and I leave together down the steps and out the door toward Tompkins Square joining others, people going to work, jogging around the park, parents with kids on bikes, by hand and scooters, walking the dog or at the dog run. There’s a husky! There’s a shiba inu! There are the homeless huddled together on the benches alike and vague as the ever-changing faces in the ever-changing clouds above them.

Walking and thinking or walking and thinking and talking can be done simultaneously because they are all going in a direction, but at Avenue A you have to look carefully both ways. First Avenue is even louder and faster with many more bicycles. Watch out! At 4th Street Akram parts toward Washington Square and I continue south, approach Houston’s traffic torrent, loud sounds of construction, and streams of people coming out of and going down into the subway tunnels. Often here great flocks of pigeons fly before me until I’m crossing Delancey and turn right on Grand past the fresh fruits and vegetables in the Chinese markets, crabs and eels squirming in tubs, shrimp and salmon on ice, and the crowded breakfast shops full of Chinese getting Chinese takeout. Down Eldridge at Division there is a beauty parlor under the rumbling Manhattan Bridge that is never open when I pass it. Three years ago when I started this walk to work, a hooker would stand in front and ask me every morning: “Where are you going?”

Where am I going? To Hamilton Madison House, a century old settlement house, serving an immigrant Jewish population then and a Chinese one now, at Catherine and Madison. I get there at 9 on the dot, opening wide the classroom door, saying loudly as I walk in, “Where is my class?” because not all of the students are there yet, they are coming, though at the tables a dozen or so Asian, African and South Americans already sit, needing to learn English so they can go to college, laughing and we begin, sometimes with amNewYorks I bring from the F train entrance at Houston to examine sentence structure, learn vernacular and the abbreviations used in the paper’s headlines, talking of news of the day, so when late students arrive, they can easily fit in, as I hand them an amNewYork and tell them: “Look for the helping verbs,” because that’s what English is, helping verbs, and verbs are the core, the skeleton that gets up and walks, asking and explaining, meeting others in conversation. I have to get my students talking and so my day begins.

Where are you going?

This week I did something I was meaning to do for a long time: I researched and found a person who could transfer a vinyl record I had to a CD, an LP I bought in the mid-70s: Tennessee Williams reading poems of Hart Crane. It was so easily done when I did it! I transferred the CD into iTunes on my laptop, then to iMovie with the pages of a poem I scanned, To Brooklyn Bridge, the first poem of Crane’s that Williams reads. I used the sound of seagulls recorded on my Flip by the East River. I hope the cry of the gulls isn’t tacky.

I worked on the vimeo Friday night into Saturday, and then simply couldn’t sleep because I heard or thought I heard the television from my neighbor Joe who’s going deaf below me, and when I dreamed I dreamed I was working on the vimeo, so when I woke I was tired, not just from lack of sleep, but also from working. I had no rest, but I wanted to go to the Met. Saturday was the last day of an exhibition called Designing Nature, the Ringpa Aesthetic in Japanese Art that I’d been wanting to see. Various works were on display from a few centuries ago to the present, porcelains, screens, printed books, ripples in ponds, flowers in bloom, a bridge across the water, a tradition that rendered Nature in a more simplified way vividly with pigments, gold and silver leaf, beginning to abstract, supplying essential details.

It was all about getting down to the essence. What isn’t? I wish that I had gone earlier and that Saturday was the second time I saw it. “It looks like poetry,” a passing man said. I thought of my uncle, my mother’s brother, who was a gunner in WW II. When his plane was shot down over the Pacific, he and his buddies swam, for days I believe, in the ocean somewhere near New Guinea where they finally landed on a beach, full of Japanese soldiers who tortured and beheaded him. As I looked at the Ringpa designs, I thought, “How could the people who did this do that?” I’m sure people in Iraq and Afghanistan looking at American art might ask themselves the same question.

Kôrin-style Patterns (Kôrin moyô)
Furuya Kôrin (Japanese, 1875–1910). Book prints.

Autumn Ivy
Ogata Kenzan (Japanese, 1663–1743). Album leaf mounted as a hanging scroll; ink, color, and gold on paper.

Crane and Pine Tree with Rising Sun
Suzuki Kiitsu (Japanese, 1796–1858). Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk

Rough Waves
Ogata Kôrin (Japanese, 1658–1716). Two-panel folding screen; ink, color, and gold on gilt paper

The day after Hurricane Sandy, in the morning, no heat, no Internet, no electricity, I sat on the couch and jotted the following.

The sky is blue, the clouds are white, the birds
Fly in and the birds fly out of sight in
My window five stories up, my building
so recently surrounded by water.
Cars floated by and two boys died quickly
Crushed by a mighty falling limb, the hand
Of God some people said. Sea took the land.
Our street swelled smelled of sea and was the sea.
A hundred houses burned in Queens. Power
Is off. Some walk the streets looking to see
A place to charge their cellphones or food to eat
Just like the cave men did. How much are
We worth? Garbage the car, the man, the bus
When the hurricane comes and covers us.

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