I started to become a writer with the first writing exercise I was ever given. I was 12. Mrs. A, my seventh-grade teacher, called it a ‟theme.” She said a theme should have a title, like ‟I Like Horses,” and then the paragraphs that followed would explain why the author liked horses. I did like horses, so that’s what I wrote: “I Like Horses.”
When the themes were graded and passed back, I saw I’d made a C. My theme had too many misspellings and was too short. My teacher was also bothered by the way I wrote about holding my big, black pony, Nightmare, between my thighs.
I again encounter Mrs. A. when I am 14 and in ninth grade. She has somehow moved up to the high school. Another nightmare. Standing before us, she goes on and on about this thing she wants us to write, this “essay.” I study her. I’m still mad over that C. Also, she’s confiscated my note to my friend, Jane.
Mrs. A’s hands are covered with blue inky spots, and when she hands back my papers, the inky spots smudge the margins. She holds a piece of chalk, tosses it from hand to hand. When she turns her back to write the essay’s due date, I make a face at Jane. But then a new thing happens within me. It’s as if the world has fallen away. I train my eyes on the sheet of paper in front of me. I pick up my pencil and write Teacher at the top of the page. The essay begins with the words: ‟Inky spots. Inky spots. All over her hands. All over my paper.” The bell rings, but I am still writing. Jane walks off in a huff.
Weeks later I am walking down the hall when I see Mrs. A. making a bee-line for me carrying a paper. She has read my essay about her; surely she won’t yell at me here. She pulls me into an empty classroom, shows me my paper with red ink everywhere. Mrs. A asks me how is it, how is it, I have not learned to punctuate or spell? I shake my head; I don’t understand it either. But, she continues, as this is an essay contest, sponsored by the newspaper, she can submit it, but I must correct these errors. There are lots, and I can’t imagine doing it; but she has dropped hints: ‟Sp.?” red marks indicate.
‟Period or comma?” she says now. ‟Is this a complete sentence?”
I have no bloody idea.
Then she gestures to two words she’s written at the top.
‟Just an idea for a new title. It can stay Teacher; consider the change only if you want it.”
My essay appeared in the newspaper under her suggested title, Inky Spots, and for first prize I won seven dollars, which I considered a lot of money. My name appeared under the title and my paternal grandmother, who lived across the street from the newspaper editor, was so proud she gave me another dollar. Printed up that way, in the newspaper, my essay looked different, nicer, more real.
I could hardly stop looking at it. At 14, I was a published writer.
That portrait of my teacher was not flattering, but she took the blow I dealt her. And I dealt her blow after blow. After I described her inky hands, I went to her Spartan wardrobe, her severe hairstyle, and her precise mannerisms. Maybe because she respected that objectivity, she let me tell my story.
I’ve always heard you become a writer if your mother chooses you to tell her stories to. But when I stitched my writing life together, I realized a teacher can choose you too.
Mariflo Stephens, whose fiction is included in Contemporary American Women Writers, also writes essays, two of which were published in The Barbie Chronicles and Successful Writing Strategies. She was awarded two grants for fiction from the Virginia Commission for the Arts. Stephens’s essay Appalachian Sprung won the Missouri Review’s Miller Audio Prize for 2017, and another essay will be published in Dogwood: A Journal of Poetry and Prose in the spring of 2018.
Most things, no matter how trite and mundane, have intrinsic beauty or interest when presented in just the proper way. This is the core premise underlying Forensic Foraging, an alternative technique for digital photography. This emerging motif employs the same throwback principles that made color photography great during the heyday of the New York School, perhaps beginning as early as the 1940’s with Saul Leiter.
Creative framing, high contrast, and very heavy color saturation are key elements. Moreover, the forage, borrowed from early forensic crime scene photography, employs the intense sifting, sorting, and shooting of all available subject matter.
The objective is to unlock hidden beauty or at least to reveal the less obvious elements of interest. Sweeping minimalist wanderlust was first unleashed by Stephen Shore in groundbreaking color images published in American Surfaces and Uncommon Places. These works remain the Holy Grail for Forensic Foraging.
There might appear to be little of value in chronicling the cluttered back seat of a VW or in capturing brooms propped helter skelter against an urban wall. However, color, texture, framing, and funky content somehow conjure up questions for the viewer about such images.
Forensic Foraging does not seek to provide hard and fast answers. It rather provides a paradigm to ask questions that might have otherwise slipped by unnoticed. It seeks an alternative viewpoint.
This variable perspective is achieved using time tested, seminal photographic techniques. I mostly eschew tack sharp digital images, embellished by extensive computer post processing. In many ways, this new genre produces classic, film-like images, even while utilizing modern digital equipment.
Forensic Foraging is joined at the hip with street photography. Spontaneous portraits like North Bronx Lovers allow the forage to capture the heartbeat of the city. The iconic work of Walker Evans and Robert Frank lives on in this nuanced approach to digital shooting. Old techniques yield stellar portraits of today’s urban life. Minimalist photography is my bread and butter. Less for me often yields more as I strive to unlock the unseen.
I still shoot a bit of monochrome with Forensic Foraging. This is a continued nod to the monumental work of Evans and Frank. It is also homage to the great combat photographers who mentored me during the Jungle War. Tri-X film was the rule in Vietnam, and I have learned to mimic it with today’s digital equipment.
William C. Crawford is a social worker, writer, and photographer who lives in Winston Salem, North Carolina. He was a grunt, and later, a combat photojournalist in Vietnam, learning his craft from one of the best—Associated Press war photographer Ollie Noonan. Crawford’s memoir, Just Like Sunday On The Farm, is available at Amazon. It includes photographs by Ollie Noonan and Specialist 4 Bill Crawford: photofreshusa.sharefile.com. Contact Crawford at email@example.com or visit ForensicForaging.com.
Discussion about multiculturalism can have a polarizing effect on people and it often slides into train wreck conversations or initiates a war of words. People tend to pick sides based on affiliation and then drown out the opposition. You’ve probably seen this happen on any number of news discussion shows. I recently witnessed such an encounter: two white men in a small group listened to a talk about social privilege during an organization’s diversity training class, and an argument ensued afterwards as the men refused to acknowledge the impact of social privilege on others and its benefit to them.
I volunteer in an international men’s organization that has gone through some growing pains since it’s inception in the early 90’s. You can probably research and discover the group to which I refer, but I’ll avoid using their name since I’m an active member. Back in the organization’s founding days, gay men were not welcome as members, and then after it came to light they were already present, they were invited to participate but not share their sexuality. Since that time, the organization has struggled to adapt and to educate and train its predominantly heterosexual, white male volunteers about multiculturalism, diversity, and “isms” (sexism, racism, ableism).
Those men that have been members since the 90’s have contributed years of valuable service, but some are now a liability because of their outdated social attitudes and ignorance; and a tension exists within the organization as a result: how to retain these valuable men but not alienate them with what may be perceived as a bitter pill of multicultural trainings. You know, it’s easy to stop and check new members at the door, but what do you do about the men already in the room?
When I first learned about the history of my organization’s founders, I had to shake my head. In a nutshell: three straight, white men brainstormed a way to reinvent male initiation for contemporary culture. It sounds like a great idea, but in my experience, whenever a dominant culture invites a subordinate culture to an organization and tries to welcome or include them, they often trigger old wounds with ignorance and carelessness. Even when they have good intentions at the outset, they end up asking inevitable questions like, “Why can’t we attract more people of color?” and “How do we keep diverse people in our organization?” Yes, those are really good questions.
As for me, I became a paid member and volunteered in my men’s group precisely because of the LGBTQ inclusivity that I found touted in its mission statement; but a mission statement, while it sounds lofty with its eloquent text, doesn’t actually define the people that show up to volunteer. This past summer, I participated in an administrative meeting where the regional council voted down a proposal that would have added a council representative from each of several minority communities: African Americans, Latinos, and GBTQ members.
On one side, it looked to some men like a power grab by minorities. On the other, it was a demonstration that minority voices needed more recognition. The official reason for the denial of expanding council seats was that the proposal, as it appeared before the council, failed on a technicality. But tempers flared, and in outside conversations, people accused white council members of being racist and bigoted — a war or words. I’ve observed how those two words “racist and bigoted”, with their weight of shame and social castigation, deflate any hope of productive talk and drive white people away. And I get it. Nobody wants to be a bad person. Nobody wants to hear that they’re racist.
However, the council eventually adopted the proposal for new community representatives and restored some of my faith, and I enjoyed a few, quiet months of recovery from the contentious meeting. Then this past week, a new incident brought tempers back to a boil. Once again, I was participating in an online video meeting with council members when it happened: after an hour and a half of productive meeting time, somebody used the meeting’s chat feature to broadcast a racially motivated accusation about another council member. The message read “…he wants special treatment because of the color of his skin.” I was stunned. Other men were stunned, too. On its face, the accusation opposed the organization’s diversity mission. Then a man asked to stop the meeting. There was confusion since some men hadn’t read the chat message, and it took a few moments for everybody to catch on. But soon enough, angry comments filled the audio stream. “That’s f***ing racist.” “Why would you say that?”
As for me, I was certain that the man who posted the inflammatory message did so by accident; the chat feature in the video meeting has a simple toggle to either send a message to an individual or to send it to the whole list of participants, and I’m sure he had intended only one person to receive his comment. During the rest of the video conference, I sat at home and watched the image of that man in a video thumbnail on my laptop screen. He wiped his face in misery and floundered silently for an answer to the questions and accusations. So many outcomes hinged on what he would say next.
It ended as well as I could have reasonably hoped.
After a round of clarifying questions and answers, the offending party spoke a solemn apology, and the aggrieved man remarked that in the heat of emotion, a person can speak hurtfully. It is to be expected.
However, in spite of conciliatory talk and some amazing leadership, the council meeting concluded with men shaking their heads and expressing sadness and fear, so there is work yet to be done. In my judgment, this is exactly the kind of painful and difficult conversation necessary for growth. Multicultural education doesn’t nullify racism or internal bias. I mean, as much as I’d like to host a conversation about heterosexism in my non-profit organization, I acknowledge that straight men are unlikely to show up and participate. What’s in it for them? But there will always be train wreck conversations that arise organically, and I’ve seen how men can calmly navigate through fear and hostility to reach a resolution.
A handshake at the end of a battle doesn’t heal wounds, mend injuries or end the war, but it’s a ritual necessary to honor the courage of both sides. When it happens, I feel my heart is in my throat. I like to remind people that we all did a good job — each in our own way. Yes, the conversation in that council meeting was scary and even triggering, but it was going to happen eventually. I honor the strength of the men that stayed and hashed it out. Even if future incidents motivate me to step away from my men’s group, at least this once I’ve had the good fortune to witness a group of adults settle their differences with integrity and grace. It’s an experience I will always remember.
–by Spriggan Radfae
Featured image: Argument by Holly (PoppetCloset on Flickr). CC license.
Recently, I participated in a group public reading of poetry at Richmond Public Library in Richmond, Virginia: Memento Mori: 26 poets responding to mortality, impermanence and grief, curated by Leslie Shiel and Lynda Fleet Perry. This was held in “conversation with two other area events: Richmond’s 1708 Gallery’s satellite exhibition, Memento Mori, curated by Michael Pierce, currently at Linden Row Inn through December 17; and the Chrysalis Institute’s fall program theme, Living Fully, Dying Mindfully.”
Each poem was a response to the theme, Memento Mori which, translated from Latin, means: “remember that you have to die,” and is an ancient practice of meditating on death and impermanence, grief, and the vanity of earthly possessions and pursuits. The practice seeks to encourage people to think about living a good life, appreciating and making the most of their days on earth. Mortality has always been a theme of artistic expression. Even up until the 20th century, symbols such as “skulls, clocks, guttering candles, fruit and vegetables portrayed the passing of time, mortality and impermanence.” Many people kept these symbols in their homes and offices and as reminders to celebrate their lives and not to take them for granted. The reading format was based on the style of a well-received two hour express poetry reading at the Dodge Poetry Festival now held biennially in Newark, New Jersey.
As the event opened, curator Leslie Shiel asked for a moment of silence, and silence was maintained between each poet’s offering. After a pause between individual readings, a new voice rose out of the hush to read the next poem, and the next. Held together by the same underlying thread, each poem was uniquely crafted in the individual poet’s style and choices. All of the poems had been written before the event was conceived.
As the reading progressed, voice after voice was added to the collection, and the audience received a living anthology of poetry. The poets became connected to each other and their listeners on multiple levels of common experience and word.
Following are poems read at the event by curators Leslie Shiel and Lynda Fleet Perry.
by Leslie Shiel
After sprinkling water
on the closed casket,
the priest calls my father our brother, and puts his hand
so tenderly there that I see
my broken father differently—
acknowledged, called into being.
And the stain on my one fine shirt?
No one can see because
my long gray hair covers it.
Leslie Shiel teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University and at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. She is the author of two chapbooks, Self-Portrait as a New Name and Braided, both published by Finishing Line Press.
by Lynda Fleet Perry
Bone clouds lit by whiteness, silver’s
metallic glint, crossing over. Powder
now, my father—gilding jonquils abloom
at his family’s old place; shelved in a mausoleum
over rapids where the one-legged heron
perches on granite; stashed in a blue heart-
shaped box, lidded, with the lock of his hair
and ivory-colored shards I gathered the day
we scattered the dust of his molecules, flickering
now in the black birth-waters he learned to fish,
and teach me, where hollow thrums
of bullfrogs echo, the reedy trill of red-wings—
Swamped in the pond’s dank vapors, I open
the heart box, breathe his acrid, deathbed scent.
I close it, and one hair wires out—silver, wild, insistent.
Lynda Fleet Perry is the author of a chapbook, At Winter Light Farm (2011). Her poems and essays appear in qarrtsiluni, defunct, Blackbird, and elsewhere. She lives in Richmond, Virginia, and works as an independent writer for nonprofits.
Roselyn Elliott is the author of four poetry chapbooks: Ghost of the Eye, 2016, Animals Usher Us to Grace, 2011, At the Center, 2008, and The Separation of Kin, 2006. Her essays and poems have appeared in New Letters, diode, Streetlight Magazine, The Florida Review, BLUELINE, and other publications. She is the poetry editor at Streetlight Magazine, and teaches at The Visual Art Center of Richmond.
that leap fully into the air
we hang for a moment on arcs
trails of quicksilver
immortal for a moment
the vision’s released
Wulf Losee lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area. The two cats who allow Wulf to live with them are also his severest critics. Writing poetry detracts from playtime, petting time, and from feeding them treats—and they regularly show their contempt for his muse by walking nimble-footed across his keyboard.
Featured image: Tiny Rainbow Spectrum II by Toshihiro Oimatsu. CC license.
Of course it’s only a coincidence that Armistice Day, the conclusion of World War I, falls (or used to) in November, that month which begins with All Hallows Eve and proceeds briskly to the Day of the Dead. It just happened that way.
Armistice Day, has evolved into Veteran’s Day, still in November and it’s possibly not a coincidence at all that the Vietnam Memorial, that other reminder of war and its heroes, was dedicated in November of 1982. Dedicated, in fact, on November 13, the date on which I am posting these comments. In another one of those, possibly not coincidental instances, November 13 is also World Kindness Day. World kindness, yes, we could use some of that.
It wasn’t an easy memorial to get finished, that memorial to a war which was not only unpopular, but also extremely unsuccessful. Many have had even worse things to say about it. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_Veterans_Memorial for a good description of the trials and tribulations it took to get this important memorial finally approved.
From 1964, when it first began to 1974, when it finally ended, I was among the many who vigorously protested that war. We marched, we wrote to our congressmen, we met in loud and hopeless gatherings. Meanwhile, my slightly younger brother, who had made a career in the Navy his life goal, went to Vietnam, as a volunteer, not just once, but three times.
To say that we had some differences of opinion would be an understatement. For me, it was this incredibly stupid thing the government was doing. It was the draft, hanging over so many young men I knew. It was a horror happening on television every night and a national shame that kept getting worse and worse. For my brother it was an occasion for patriotism, bravery and accomplishment.
We never became quite estranged. There were too many other things that held our relationship together—and besides, when it was all happening, we were geographically located great distances apart. While he was training up and then volunteering for war, I was married and raising two small children in upstate New York. It was after the war that we had to talk about it.
And talk about it we did, even if as little and as tactfully as possible. We were both unwilling to break into outright antagonism. My brother never told me he thought I was a pinko collaborator and I never told him I thought he was a tool of the military-industrial complex—but the subtext was there. He had only a little to say about his experience working at the military hospital in DaNang. “We built it up during the day and the Viet Cong took it down at night” is one thing I remember him saying.
Somewhere in the late eighties or early nineties, I had occasion to visit the Vietnam Memorial and saw firsthand those lines of names that are so emotionally compelling. My brother’s name is not there. He survived his three dares with Vietnam and came back to the USA for more promotion, got married, then after his thirty years, retired to live out the rest of his life in what had been our home town.
Eventually we came to a kind of détente about Vietnam. I still thought it was stupid, but I had respect for the men who served. He still thought it was an important military campaign—and was sure to tell me so—but could see that it had failed. We didn’t venture into a discussion of why that happened.
Recently I have had the rather sad task of sorting out some photographs left after my mother’s death. Coming across some faded and mysterious snaps of military men and an Asian environment, I suddenly realized I had come across my brother’s Vietnam pictures. Nothing unusual, just brief glimpses of people and places that must have meant a great deal to him. As in the conversations we once had, his pictures have a different resonance for me—but I do see them as a kind of memorial.
Once I asked my brother if he had ever been to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. He shook his head and said, “Nah. I don’t have to do that.” I would have liked to know more about why he thought so, but I didn’t push it. Now I kind of wish I had.
Susan Shafarzek lives in Charlottesville, Va. Besides editing essays for Streetlight, she is a poet and photographer, blogging occasionally at Whaddyameanrosebuds.com.
Chicago is in my blood, even though today I consider myself a Californian. My parents immigrated to the Windy City in the late 1950’s; my younger brother, my three older sisters and I were all born on the Westside.
Chicago has always been a tough, blue-collar town, made up of different ethnic neighborhoods that can be downright hostile to outsiders. But when my parents moved there, it was also a city where housing was very affordable, where working class wages were strong, and a place where you could get a good education at a fair price. Many Latino parents, like mine, were able to provide their families a solid, middle class existence. It wasn’t easy by any means; my father was a factory foreman who worked 6 days a week and my mother cleaned offices in Downtown Chicago at night. There were many sacrifices but there was obvious fruit being born from their hard labor. Chicago had an infrastructure in place through which immigrants and working class folks could work hard and better themselves within one generation. There was this other Mexican family we grew up with whose father worked in the steel mills for 30 years. He and his wife had seven children and in one generation produced a doctor, an RN, two teachers, and a lawyer, all of whom had received their education thanks to their father’s hard work all of those years in that steel mill.
We were raised in a close-knit Latino neighborhood called Little Village, or, as we referred to it, 26th Street. 26th street was the main thoroughfare; it was a busy street filled with all types of shops, supermarkets, restaurants, and bars. The side streets were made up of brown brick homes that were almost on top of each other. The only things separating them were narrow walkways. It was the 1970’s and most of us were first generation Americans; our parents came from Mexico, Puerto-Rico, Cuba, El Salvador, Colombia, Guatemala, and Honduras. Many of the families owned their own homes and businesses. It was a unique experience: we shared a common heritage, yes, but also a dream for a better life. It was a cocoon, where we felt connected to one another. Most of us grew up speaking Spanish at home, visited the old country every summer, and enjoyed similar foods and traditions. We were shielded from the rest of the city.
But Little Village could also be a very violent place; there were gangs there who strictly enforced their territorial boundaries. We lived within one gang’s “hood” but our school and the park we played at were part of another gang’s territory. Navigating through this dangerous maze could be harrowing at times.
One cold winter evening, my brother and I were walking home from the Boy’s Club. It was dark and eerily quiet. We could only hear the wind and our footsteps against the snow-covered sidewalk. Almost out of nowhere, a gang of teenagers appeared. We didn’t recognize any of them. The group began running toward us but we knew enough not to run. We kept calm; we weren’t part of any gang so we had nothing to hide. The gangbangers soon surrounded my little brother and me. They were older kids so they towered over us. They asked us who we were and what we were doing in their hood. Now we were scared, shaking and shivering. Suddenly an older boy came out from the back, and was right in my face; he looked angry and menacing. Then, out of the blue, he said, “Hey, aren’t you la Senora Diaz’s kids?” We nervously nodded yes. A smile spread across his threatening face, he turned to his crew and said “they’re okay, leave them alone.” It turned out that the gang leader’s mother cleaned offices with my mother, and he recognized us. He turned to us one last time, and in a low voice asked us not to tell our mother about the incident. We never did.
Another time, I and some friends were eating at this very popular tacos and tortas restaurant on 26th Street. Suddenly we saw a gang member show up at the door of the establishment, with a shotgun in his hands. The owner of the restaurant, a middle-aged Mexican man, immediately grabbed a crowbar from behind the counter, ran out and confronted the gunman. The owner yelled out expletives at the gangbanger warning him to leave before he shoved the crowbar down his throat. The young thug could see that the old man meant business and left the premises without firing a shot. It turned out that there was a rival gangster eating at the restaurant that night, who was not supposed to be in that hood, but I guess he felt the food was that good. This courageous, tough-guy business owner, who was protecting his own turf, thwarted what could have been a very ugly scene.
For the most part, the gangbangers left the “good kids” alone. If you weren’t associated with a gang, they didn’t mess with you. I strongly believe that most of these gang members were also good kids at heart, they simply didn’t have the stability or support that they needed at home. Many of them actually had this unspoken respect for the hard working families living among them; whom they could see were just trying to better themselves. In their own way, they were rooting for us to make it.
Chicago is almost evenly made up of White Ethnics (Irish, Italians, Greeks, Polish, etc.), Latinos, and African-Americans; Asians make up a smaller percentage of the population. Even though it is diverse, it is a very segregated town and some of these communities don’t take too well to outsiders moving in.
The Irish arrived in the 1840s, while the other White Ethnics came at the end of the 19th century. African-Americans have always been part of the city but their numbers really increased during the Great Migration from the South between 1910-1940. Unfortunately, they were almost immediately segregated/relegated to the South Eastside of the city. This remains true for working-class African-Americans today and the area is still greatly underserved and ignored. Latinos, particularly Mexicans, arrived in large numbers in the 1920’s and continue migrating there to this day. Chicago always had plenty of work to go around—the meat packing industry, the steel mills, factories, etc. that attracted the labor classes.
For the longest time, Latinos were somewhat considered as just another immigrant group in the Chicago experience, although much lower on the rung. Unlike African-Americans, once Latinos gained the means, they were able to move into traditionally White areas, as long as there weren’t too many of them and as long as they kept a low profile.
The Irish dominated the city’s political machine starting in the 1950s with the election of Richard J. Daley, who ruled the city with an iron fist. The city doled out services and monies to the neighborhoods that were dominated by White Ethnics. Everyone else was just an afterthought. In order to keep a stronghold on their power, Ethnic Whites felt the need to keep other groups down. This tribal mentality permeated all aspects of Chicago life from politics, to communities, to the labor environment.
After I graduated elementary school in the early 1980s we left Little Village, for a “better area.” Now, my brother and I found ourselves navigating a whole different set of circumstances. Instead of making sure we weren’t caught up in a gang crossfire we had to find our way around the racial/ethnic hotbeds that make up the city. We moved into a traditionally Irish-American enclave where, to put it politely, no one ever rolled out the welcome carpet for us. In fact, when we first moved in, some of the neighborhood teen-aged thugs would call us names and tell us to go back to where we came from, while the other neighbors simply ignored us for many years.
We attended an Irish Catholic High School on the far South Westside. The Brothers (Catholic Brothers are not priests, they are more like male nuns) who ran the school and taught there were looking out for their people. If you weren’t part of their tribe, you were on your own; members of the club received all of their attention and care. The Brothers knew the White students’ names, and their families intimately, while the minority students were virtually ignored. There was this Irish-American kid in my junior year geometry class who was always goofing off. He never turned in his homework on time and failed many exams throughout the semester. I worked hard; handed in my assignments on time, studied several hours a week, passed all of the exams, and got a B. I was shocked to find out that the mediocre White student also received a B, even though it was obvious that he didn’t deserve it. I later found out that his parents and the Brother who taught geometry played cards together every Friday night. Even though we all paid the same tuition it was obvious that some students got much more bang for their buck.
As a young adult in the early 1990s, I also experienced first hand how White ethnics looked out for their own. I worked my way through college with a job at UPS. I remember being assigned to a new unit, and one of my employees was a young Polish-American guy who was one of the top performers. When I first came onboard, he thought I was Italian; they used to call me Alex back then. When I told him that I was Latino, his attitude completely changed. He no longer worked hard and his now low performance started bringing down the team’s productivity. It wasn’t until my boss, who was of Polish descent as well had a talk with him that the young man straightened out. It was also common at UPS back then to see non-college educated Whites get management positions over college-educated Blacks and Latinos. The people in positions of authority were part of a particular ethnic group so they helped their own first before anyone else.
I left the Windy City for many reasons; yes the winters were brutal, but the main reason I moved away was the us-against-them way of looking at the world. Sooner or later, this very ugly clannish mindset would kick into full gear. The ethnic Whites took care of their own at the expense of Latinos, African-Americans and other minorities. It’s part of Chicago’s notorious “patronage system.”
After a while “the beefs” (Chi-town slang for run-ins) got too much for me. I was tired of always fighting for my place in my own hometown. The negative racial comments that I heard on a regular basis stopped once I moved away from Chicago; first to Miami for graduate school then to LA. It was liberating. In Chicago I would regularly hear Whites put down African-Americans and Latinos. But they would always make the disclaimer of “You’re not like the rest of them. You’re different.” As if this made what they were saying acceptable. The discussion always seemed to turn to race for them.
It was as if Chicago Whites were obsessed with pointing out how everyone else was dysfunctional and not worthy of the opportunities offered in this country. It was sad and disturbing.
LA is much more inclusive, less judgmental, and more progressive. That’s why I relocated here many years ago. In Los Angeles, for the most part, you see groups of friends socializing around the city made up of people from different backgrounds—Black, White, Latino, Asian, Immigrant, Straight, Gay, etc. To this day, when I visit my hometown I’m amazed at how segregated the city remains. I still see people living and socializing only with those from their particular tribes. I am shocked to see the lack of diversity in their inner circles and neighborhoods.
Politically, the last two mayors of Los Angeles have had Mexican lineage; the political landscape here seems much more accessible than in Chicago. At the same time, Los Angeles is not, and has never really been, a place where working-class immigrants could thrive; economic segregation runs deep in the City of Angels. The income disparity is at its worst here. I see everyday how hard it is for working class, and even middle-class people to keep up here. You can buy a nice single family home in Chicago for well under $300,000. This is impossible in the city of Angels. When I travel around the country I am amazed at how expensive Los Angeles is compared to most other areas; lunch will cost you half most everywhere else what it costs here. One definitely has to think twice before coming here to start from the bottom.
But there are also many reasons people flock to LA, one of them being that people don’t feel confined or unwelcome in most parts of the city. Freedom to move about freely in your city can be exhilarating. That’s the lure of California: there is something here for everyone.
White ethnics, specifically the Irish, made Chicago into a place where working-class people could live decently and progress. The cost of living was affordable, blue-collar jobs paid fair wages, and there were unions that protected workers against managerial abuses. It was their way of building a society free of the oppressive and elitist Anglo-Saxon customs of the old world. Unfortunately, this new arrangement wasn’t really designed for non-whites. For minorities, there were additional obstacles placed in their way. Nonetheless, my Mexican family persevered and utilized this system to make sure we too received our shot at the American Dream.
There was a code in working-class Chicago; if someone had a problem with you they would definitely let you know, and you dealt with it right then and there. If somebody pushed you, you pushed them right back. This is what I refer to as “Growing up Chicago.” Even though the environment could be antagonistic, at least you knew where you stood: the gangs on 26th Street, our unfriendly White ethnic neighbors, and the in-your-face racist students and teachers at our Catholic High School. Chi-Town was definitely a tough city to grow up in but it was also the perfect place for my immigrant parents to have landed.
Alejandro Diaz was born and raised in Chicago to Mexican immigrant parents. He holds a MFA in Screenwriting from the University of Miami and has been published in Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul, the Los Angeles Times, Hispanic Magazine and at LatinoRebels.com. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife.
Sometimes trying to write is like playing Scrabble
(old school—not virtual)
and reaching into the bag for more letters only to have your fingers come up empty-handed. In fact, I’ve been racking my brain for blog topics for so long even my Facebook page has taken to castigating me.
I’m pretty sure my disappointing search for ideas may have crossed over into Writer’s Block territory. For those who have never visited this particular geographical area, think ghost town in the middle of a super fund site—with a large population of large rodents.
Recognizing the landmarks of Writer’s Block is like discovering your passport is missing while standing in line to board the plane. First you enter an unnatural Zen state, then alarm kicks in, and then a crushing load of very serious alarm settles over you.
It’s not pretty.
Unlike prolific authors Joyce Carol Oates, Adrian McKinty, Stephen King (et al ad nauseum) who write book after book seemingly without naps or bathroom breaks, my own reserve of ideas is of the nonrenewable variety. In fact, I’m fairly sure that injudicious tweeting can drain the supply.
When I get seriously stuck I try and remember the tricks and prompts I’ve collected over the years. For my money the best how-to on the subject of writing is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. (The title comes from a time when her brother had to write a school report about a range of winged creatures. Overwhelmed by the enormity of the project he asked his father how he could possibly get it done. ‘Bird by bird’ was the wise response.)
Some of Lamott’s advice to just getting-it-done include:
–Accepting the fact that a “shitty first draft” is part of the process. (As a perfectionist who could spin my wheels on the same sentence indefinitely, this was pretty liberating.) Plowing forward is the only way to actually reach the finish line. You can’t edit nothing.
–Her tip to get the truth on paper first and worry about cleaning it up for libel down the road also provides a route around an obstacle of anxiety.
–The volume on radio “KFCKD” (the Trumpian station nobody else can hear that trash talks in one ear and blows smoke up your ass in the other) is adjustable.
–Writing 300 words a day on anything is really important to keep the juices flowing. (Full disclosure: I have a hard time with this one. I don’t do well with being told what to do. Even if I’m the one doing the telling.)
Anyway, I love Anne Lamott so much that when my first novel was being brought out by a small press and I was tasked with finding my own endorsements, I reached out to one of her reps. He wrote back so quickly to say that she was taking a “blurbatorium” it was like he’d been waiting for years inside my computer just to turn me down.
Writing is rough business.
Taking classes can also get you off Writer’s Block.
Not long after we moved to Charlottesville, back when I was experiencing the social state my offspring kindly refer to as When-Mom-Had-The-No-Friends, I signed up for a workshop on crafting non-fiction. I was in search of instruction. And buddies. So I was thrilled when I thought I found both in the teacher. We were roughly the same age. We seemed to have the same sensibilities. She laughed at my jokes. I invited her out for lunch.
She blew me off. (That was seventeen years ago. Like most writers I have an uncanny ability to nurse and store hurts for easy access.) But I digress and I’m economizing.
Despite my mortification I stayed in that creative non-fiction class. The (mean) teacher emphasized the importance of utilizing all senses not only for texture but also narrative. She brought in photographs of paintings and asked us to free-write memories they triggered. I held the snapshot of the gloomy greasy spoon in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawksand recalled going with a group of friends for 4 a.m. eggs at the Tastee Diner in Silver Spring. Graduation was around the corner and we were giddy with the future. But studying Hopper’s artwork I suddenly remembered that off in my peripheral vision of that night of laughter and possibility, were a couple old men slumped at the counter, draped in a corona of futility.
Wouldn’t that have made a good framework for a story—ghosts of the future seated at the counter?
In any event, what I’ve learned is that there are a lot of different avenues away from the blighted block. Even writing about it.
ps There are almost 900 words in this piece. Which means I can take the next couple of days off.
Erika Raskin, the fiction editor of Streetlight, is the author of Close (Harvard Square Editions) and Best Intentions (St. Martin’s Press).
Because the watcher wrote red on the shop’s wall,
because the half-candle was stolen & sold
because the innocent got hit with a cold,
because the town is divided by a line of blood
in the sand,
because the drug you bought was dropped
in the ditch,
because the sky is burnished with orange
not unlike a lockman’s smile,
because this rusty box houses a severed finger
from an unknown hand,
because the woman you saw walking in the market
carried a purse made of flies,
because the dead haunt your days with fish-scale
chains rattling on the road
for this, only for this reason I lied to you.
Charles Kell is a PhD student at The University of Rhode Island and editor of The Ocean State Review. His poetry and fiction have appeared in The New Orleans Review, The Saint Ann’s Review, IthacaLit, The Pinch, and elsewhere. He teaches in Rhode Island and Connecticut.
Featured image: Underground Larakin by Darkdays photographer at flickr. CC license.
I wrote an entirely new Chapter 1 for the new edition of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (Holt 2006; rev. 2016). The idea to open the biography at a low point in the her life, instead of during childhood was suggested by Garrison Keillor in a review of the first edition appearing in the New York Times ‘Sunday Book’ section: ‘If you were going to draw a movie from this book, you’d start on York Avenue in Manhattan on a cold winter night in the late 1950’s. Pages of manuscript fluttering out of an apartment window and then a young woman, weeping, picking them up out of the snow. She is an airline ticket clerk and she has been working at her typewriter late at night ever since she came to the city over her parents’ objections in 1949. She is on her own.’
I thought about recasting the action that way for months, and I liked the idea. Reordering the timeline in the book, starting with a scene built around an image of ‘Pages of manuscript fluttering out of an apartment window…’— would add more torque to the beginning by giving us Harper Lee, hopeless author in lonely, cold New York. Now, reading on, we would want to know the answer to the question, ‘How’d that happen to her?’ Suspense. And the narrative can proceed from there. In fact, Keillor sketched out how the rest would follow, by plot points, in movie treatment style.
It was excellent advice. Put the subject in a deep hole. Make reader wonder, ‘What happens next?’ Kurt Vonnegut explains that structure in his most famous chalk talk, ‘The Shape of Stories’.
In the meantime, I tried out Keillor’s advice on a completely different book. I began writing a life of of Kurt Vonnegut. And one Saturday morning, the beginning came to me. I’d start with Vonnegut in the Slough of Despair, deep in a hole. It would be a moment in his life of ‘Pages of manuscript fluttering out of an apartment window…’ I knew when it was, too. Also, I liked the irony of starting with Vonnegut in a hole like one of his characters.
Charles J. Shields is the author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (Holt 2006; rev. 2016), and And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, a Life (Holt 2012). He and his wife Guadalupe live in Charlottesville, Virginia. His website is CharlesJShields.net.
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