A tragic event happened this summer in Seattle during the Black Lives Matter protests that I keep thinking about; what I came to see, and what I learned about myself and my relationship with racism.
The Black Femme March against racism and police violence, a festive, peaceful protest for BLM was followed by a drive-by hit and run that killed one person and badly injured another.
The person who was killed was a 24-year-old named Summer Taylor. The injured person was Diaz Love, a 32-year-old from Portland, Oregon.
I saw Summer Taylor’s photo on Twitter after the event and at first I only knew them as “The girl with the pink hair”.
I have since learned that Summer Taylor used non-binary they/them pronouns. 24-year-old Summer Taylor with the pink hair worked at the Urban Animal veterinarian clinic by day and was an activist by night, participating regularly in the Black Lives Protests, which had continued daily for months, and still continue to this day.
Reading about the protest and Summer Taylor’s death the following morning on Twitter, I came upon a video of people participating in the protest before the car incident.
In the video the protesters are dancing together.
The Black Lives Matter movement, the media and the conversation about it has made me aware of race-based injustice and triggered recognition of my complicity with systematic racism. I have come to recognize my relative comfort of privilege in American society and also the pang of fear I have about losing that privilege. Privilege feels like some sort of edge that I need to lean on to get by. We live in scary times. Letting go is an act of trust.
This video grabbed my attention and made me stop and think. There they are. The protesters are dancing together, having fun. Demonstrating a society without racism and a new vision of what life can become.
Watching the dance, I see that equality for everyone is not a win-lose proposition. It is a new possibility that everyone can be privileged, and we will be better for it.
When everyone is privileged we will all be smarter, safer, more engaged, wealthier. There will be a bigger pie. There will be more, not less. Everyone will share equally in human rights and be entitled to dignity and respect – an equally privileged place in society.
I am thinking this morning about the month of April 2020.
This month some 50,000 American people have died of Coronavirus Covid-19. That is more people than the quantity of American men and women who died in the Vietnam War – a statistic.
I remember how people acted and felt and thought about the Vietnam War. How I experienced life as a child when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy died. When Kent State happened. When the Mai Lai Massacre happened. I remember often how we played “Combat” in 1965 and how I played “Hippie” in 1968. I remember how long the war was and how our perceptions of the war changed.
I remember how strongly I felt about the Vietnam War as a child and even as an adult. When AIDS was an epidemic of death, I wondered why, then, I did not seem to be as strongly affected as I was as a child about Viet Nam. Many of my friends and acquaintances disappeared. I stuffed my feelings and didn’t talk about it.
When 9/11 happened I went as close to the towers as I could get. It was because I was afraid that I would not feel it; that a “moment in history” was happening and I might not be fully present for it.
So I’m wondering, thinking, meditating on the fact that 50,000 American citizens have died of Coronavirus Covid-19 in the month of April 2020.
My next thought is that the dying and death isn’t over. We still have an active epidemic in May, June, the rest of 2020, and beyond.
It is so difficult to grasp.
50,000 becomes a statistic. 350,000,000 Americans divided by 50,000 is 7,000.
One in 7,000 Americans have died. I do not know 7,000 people but I do know of one man who died. I know people who know people who have died.
The Disappeared. No longer with us. Ghosts of vibrant talented loving people who often sacrificed for others and often died because of it.
This day I will remember the people who died in the month of April 2020.
Today is April 15th, Tax Day, traditionally the day when U.S. taxes are due. I have not completed my taxes yet or sent them in. This year taxes are not due until sometime in July.
I’ve just completed a work task and I am out for a walk on this sunny afternoon. I am seeing what it is like to be in the new now.
I’ve lost count of how many days I have practiced self-isolation in response to the Coronavirus Covid-19. My isolation started the week before New York City’s Mayor De Blasio proclaimed a shutdown of the city.
Prior to the shutdown we were aware about how the Covid-19 virus had entered the United States and was spreading in California. A friend was moving to Philadelphia to start a new job. His girlfriend had given notice at her job. She planned to go to an advanced college program starting in May. I helped my friend move at the very end of February. His girlfriend stayed behind to finish at her job but she also moved early, eager to get out of New York before the onslaught.
I was cleaning up my act, making plans to look for a new job. Last year I grew a beautiful long beard, admired and feared by all. I decided to shave it off. It no longer served me or represented who I next wanted to become. I planned to look for a new job. I was going to exercise. I planned to swim at the city pool in the summer and it was time for the beard to go. I was looking ahead, ready for the new new me.
On March 9th I went to Manhattan for an early appointment. It was an early beautiful day in a year when winter and spring were persistently cold and windy. So as a treat, I brought my computer with me, planning to work in Bryant Park. I used the free Wi-Fi to send resumes. The park was crowded with people and I watched office workers enjoying their lunch hour. I took pictures of the daffodils, the people and the park.
When my battery ran low I went to Whole Foods across the street to treat myself to a food-court lunch. I plugged my computer into the socket at the second-story window, which looks across the street to the park. I continued to send resumes.
I was being somewhat willful and indulgent by sojourning at the park. I knew already there were cases of Covid-19 in New York. News was being broadcast about people who had tested positive from Covid-19 after attending the Jewish AIPAC convention in Washington DC. A lawyer in Westchester was diagnosed and hospitalized. Maybe he had gone to AIPAC and returned with the virus. As I sat in the park I paused in my work to marvel at the crowd, thinking about how this might be the last chance to have this experience.
After spending the day sending resumes I walked north to meet my men’s team at a location we had chosen. Mom called right before the meeting was to start. She was hysterical. “Where are you?” she demanded. “What are you DOING there? What KIND of meeting? There’s a CRISIS in New York!” I guess that she was watching CNN.
By March 10th a town north of New York City, New Rochelle, had become a hot spot of infections. Governor Andrew Cuomo called out the National Guard to close the center of New Rochelle, in an area surrounding the local synagogue. People could still get in and out of the area, but people were discouraged from going there. People in New Rochelle complained that their business was adversely affected.
A friend told me that his friend had a friend on the Upper East Side of Manhattan who was infected. He wondered if it was safe to visit his friend. They had planned to celebrate Purim.
So that was over a month ago. Today on the radio, Governor Andrew Cuomo is saying that we have “reached the peak” of the exponential explosion of infections to Covid-19. The quantity of new cases of virus infections and death are leveling off. Meanwhile the City of New York is adding to the death count the deaths of people who have died at home. 3,800 more New Yorkers have died from Covid-19, bringing the New York City death toll to over 10,000 residents.
Mostly I have stayed inside. From time to time there have been sunny afternoons and I’ve gone for walks around the park, keeping distance from other people. I go to the pharmacy and the grocery store.
At Astoria Park, near where I live, there is a contingent of motorcycle enthusiasts who congregate and crowd near the East River. In the early days of the shutdown that area of the park was packed with bikers, hot cars, pot smokers and the crowd. It was scary to walk near. I thought there might be a shooting.
On the top of the hill, on the opposite side of the park, mothers and fathers walked their children, people read books and took in the sun. People were keeping distance. There was a distinct difference between how people acted and used the park. Queens is the most culturally diverse county in the world and we all get along, but cultural differences have results and consequences.
Anyway, three weeks ago is also so long ago now. The governor heard reports about people in the parks not social distancing and he declared that the police would enforce his order. Motorcycle people and potheads still congregate there, but a little less crowded, and more spaced out.
As the Covid-19 virus started to spread in the U.S., only a few people wore masks at first. I saw Chinese people living in Jamaica NY wearing masks last November 2019, and on the subway whenever I go to Manhattan. Other people did not generally wear masks before mid-March.
I went to the clinic that I go to in Manhattan last week. It was the first time I went on a bus or the subway in over a month. It was a little scary. Now people enter the bus from the back door. The front of the bus is cordoned off with a chain, to protect the bus driver from passengers. About 50 bus drivers have died from contracting the Covid-19 virus. 50 bus drivers.
It was 8:00 am and there were only a handful of riders. Everyone had masks on except one young Spanish girl talking on the phone. Many of the men wore gloves as well. Each person sat apart from everyone else. People on the bus were solemn and quiet except the girl on the phone. She seemed oblivious and self-entitled in the way beautiful young girls often do.
We didn’t have to pay to ride the bus. When we got to the subway I used my card. Another man jumped the turnstile. I wondered if that is now the preferred protocol. The few people stood apart on the subway platform. The F train was not crowded and people sat three or four seats apart. I wore my mask, sat silently, watchfully in my seat and did not use my phone.
I arrived at Bryant Park, where I had been in early March. The day was overcast. The park was empty. There was only about one person on each block. The types of people on the street were either homeless men, or young black men who looked like essential construction workers. I saw one old man with a cane and one young man walking his dog. Times Square was empty, except for cops and a few people. One man stopped to see the “Good Morning America” show being broadcast from Times Square. If he had not stopped I would not have noticed. I stopped too and took a picture of the crew working inside.
I arrived early at the clinic. The front entrance was blocked off. A security guard and a nurse were there. They wanted to know who I was, did I have an appointment and with who? The nurse demanded to take my temperature and she handed me an envelope with a mask inside, which she told me to put on before I could come inside. I was told to check in and wait.
The clinic is usually packed with people. The clinic was empty except for me. I had made the appointment in late January. Almost instantly I was called and ushered into the doctor’s office. The doctor seemed to want to crawl up the walls. The doctor and a nurse were very serious. They were very scared of me. They did not know who I was, although I had seen both the doctor and the nurse before.
Paper and the curtain were gone from the examination bench. No matter. I brought my medications in a clear plastic bag. The doctor renewed my prescriptions and let me go. I was out and on the street before my appointment time. It took a long time to get home. The subways now run only every half-hour and I had to wait on the platform. I considered jumping the turnstile like I saw the man do earlier but I opted to buy more subway fare and use my ticket. By the time I got on the subway I was eager to get back home, back into my safe splendid isolation.
People did not used to wear masks. Now everyone wears masks. Today the Mayor of New York declared that New Yorkers must wear masks to go into stores and that the police will enforce his order. Most people already wear masks to go to stores. Now it is the polite thing to do.
One grocery store started to control how many people at a time can enter the store. Now they all do. People line up outside of the store, waiting to be admitted in, a few at a time. A lot of New York City grocery workers got sick and died. I don’t know how many. Two weeks ago a friend and I walked to Costco to shop. The line of people waiting to shop ran from the store entrance, around the hotdog & pizza shop, past the liquor store, around the side past the Tire Center, to the street and down the sidewalk.
I keep digressing back to before Covid-19 hit New York City to show the differences between then and now. So what is it like now, today on my walk?
I prepared for my journey today by bringing a mask and a pair of gloves. I can forego using the mask when I am walking and able to distance myself from people. I walked by the local hospital, Mt. Sinai, on my way. They have blocked off a street and set up some sort of barracks-like temporary structures. A new traffic light has appeared on the street before the entrance to the emergency room. There is a swirl of medical garbage surrounding the hospital in all directions. I guess that medical personnel or patients strips off their masks and gloves and just toss them when they leave Mt. Sinai Hospital.
When I came near the bank I put my mask on. There was a young woman at the door, allowing people in one at a time. She held me inside near the door until the previous patron was departing. She commented about my missing beard, saying that I look great without it. I was surprised that she remembered me and we chatted while I was waiting. I went to the counter to deposit my check and chatted as well with the Teller before I departed.
I walked from the bank across Astoria to Home Depot on Northern Blvd. Along the way I noticed and counted stores that were closed. On one block, two stores were open and eight were closed. I was surprised to see Laundromats closed. I wonder where people go to wash their clothes now? I can see that many stores and restaurants are closed permanently, out of business.
Job statistics were announced today. Another 5 million people filed for unemployment last week, bringing the total new unemployed to 30 million. Radio reports from the World Monetary Fund today said that this would be a depression worse than the Great Depression. I hear that some people are beginning to get their Federal Care Act checks. I don’t have mine. I wonder what I need to do to get it. I don’t have unemployment. I was a gig worker. I wonder if I can apply for unemployment as a gig worker. I am a web designer, ostensibly a small business. Can I apply for a small business loan? Can I do both? I do not yet know.
I applied for SNAP in early March. The HRA gives themselves thirty days to make a determination whether or not to grant help. It took until April before I got food assistance. New York City now has an app where you can apply and upload documents on a phone. I called after two weeks because I could not see any results on the app. The HRA woman who answered the phone told me that someone at HRA has to manually upload photographed documents from the app to the HRA’s pre-existing system and my documents had not yet been uploaded. The office is half-staffed. She suggested that I walk to the local office, rescan and upload the documents myself. I did that on March 15th.
Today the Mayor of New York said on the radio that no one in New York would go hungry. He will not allow anyone to go hungry. I meant to call the public radio on Friday’s “Ask the Mayor” program to say that the SNAP HRA app is broken; there is no one to transfer documents into the system. Now the Mayor is saying on the news that everyone should apply online. Do not come to the SNAP Center.
But I digress. Home Depot is open for business. I waited in line to get in. I wore my mask. An old man was screaming bloody murder that he wanted to walk out the front door rather than the back. He swore at the door watcher who was holding the line.
I went to get seeds for my garden and to send to Mom. Home Depot requires people to exit out the back to look for garden plants. I wanted to buy tomatoes but they are too expensive there. I had to wait in line again to go back inside to pay for my packets of seeds.
I walked back towards my bank. There is a C-Town grocery store there and I noticed it did not have a line. A block away, Trade Fair has a long line outside the store of people waiting to get in.
I got to C-Town and discovered that I had lost my mask. I took my mask off after getting out of Home Depot to put on earphones and it fell out of my pocket. I was ready to try sneaking in without a mask but I decided not to. I found a clean mask and came back. I got my groceries and trudged home.
Many store shelves are empty now. I’ve listened to recent radio reports about supply chains. There is a big thing now about supply chains and food, supply chains for business and manufacturing, supply chains for medical equipment. The Mayor says that New York will begin to manufacture medical supplies locally so that we don’t have to depend on the federal government or China for masks.
I am looking ahead. I expect this Covid-19 time to linger, maybe for years. The President is chomping for business to reopen. There will be liability for negligence if they do. I am reviewing the priorities that I thought I had before. Now some of my plans may not be important anymore. Now I have new priorities. I don’t know yet. I am feeling out what they might be.
Volunteering gives me an opportunity to gain insight into my character and grow as a man. Each opportunity is temporal and growth is halting but I provide myself small chances to change my character when working as part of a team.
Recently I applied to volunteer and join the Production team. My tribe-mate applied for the Packing-Day team.
Previously our tiny tribe, which is dispersed across states, discussed the possibility of us all coming together for packing day so we could meet face-to-face. I had fielded the idea of coming up to visit the Packing Day Team and bringing up some snack or something.
A manager called and told me that they were short men for the Packing Day team. I was asked to volunteer both for packing day as well as production.
Immediately the little monkeys in my mind started to chatter. The monkey-chatter came fast and furious in two waves.
The first wave was “I don’t wanna.” I’m too busy; I’ll have to give up my weekend. It will be boring. That first wave then was superseded by the second wave – “How much am I ready to give?”
How much am I ready to give to other volunteers?
How much am I ready to give to call participants?
How much am I ready to give to pay my way?
How much am I ready to give to support enrollment?
How much am I ready to give to support my production buddy?
How much am I ready to give to lead my tribe?
How much am I ready to give to solve problems?
How much am I ready to give to be prepared?
How much am I ready to give to have my life handled?
How much of me do I want to give?
I listened and observed these monkeys in my head. It was my ego kicking in, measuring my willingness to participate. What was a safe, acceptable measurement of participation? What walls could I put up, where could I hide? What lies might pass muster?
I recognized that I was not fully enrolled. I did not own the result. My commitment was conditional.
My tribe-mate and other men were planning to drive 12 hours up from Kentucky and Georgia. They were making a huge sacrifice and commitment. In comparison, I was worried about how much it would cost to take the train to Hartford.
Being conditional about commitments does not work. Commitment means “No matter what”. I tamped down my chattering monkeys and decided to own the result.
Even including me, the team was short men and Packing Day was only a week away. I started calling men, looking for help. I called men who I had not talked to for quite some time, for years, some of them.
Every man said no. I heard my own negative arguments reflected back at me. Like a story in a book, each man responded predictably, according to character.
I have experienced having insight into my character in this way many times over the years. Each time is a new opportunity to change and grow my context.
Whenever an offsite or Motomo event, or a Weekend comes up, I am scared. It is scary for me to leave my safe comfortable home and put my trust, security and well being, at least partially in the care of others, in pursuit of a goal where I don’t know how the full commitment is going to play out. The chattering monkeys in my head go into frenzy every time.
My chattering monkeys need to be ignored. What I’ve learned over the years is that when I go to whatever the event is and come out the other side, I tell myself “Wow what a great time I had.” My fears are overblown and unfounded.
Once I got fully committed the event was easy. I rode up with the women. I was amazed how many men and women volunteered for Packing Day. We had a blast. Afterwards we went out for dinner and enjoyed each other’s company.
As it turned out, Packing Day WAS that Weekend. Not enough people registered for the Coed Weekend; it has been postponed and maybe cancelled.
Previous volunteer experiences have taught me to embrace ownership, responsibility and to produce the result.
When I was in college I was a volunteer for a student art and literary magazine. We went out and begged students to submit work for publication. We hired a photographer to assist students to submit their work, organized a jury to select work for publication and we put together and printed the magazine. Finally we had to go out and sell the magazine, sitting at tables in the student cafeteria and persuade bookstores to carry our magazine.
The Magazine Editor, Martha P. Hogan, used to make an ironic joke, quoting the children’s story, The Little Red Hen, “Now who will help me EAT the bread?” She quipped. It did not seem fair that we had to work so hard to give so much, and then we had to go out and push sales too. But that is what we needed to do.
(We got to work so hard and give so much, and we even had an opportunity to push sales.)
Later, I became the Editor. In addition to publishing art, poetry and short stories, we also interviewed a famous artist or writer and published the interview in our magazine.
Some years before, a different set of volunteers had served who seemed to me to be mysteriously cool. One man in particular had once been involved with the magazine and was also the leader of a rock band and a radio announcer on the college radio station. Manny Rettinger had also started a record company and an art magazine, amongst other things. I wondered how he did so much. He seemed to be everywhere.
I enlisted a volunteer to interview the prolific musician. I wanted to know how he did it, what made him tick?
The writer came back from the interview with his story. I read it and found this answer:
“When people say they want to have a scene, I fear that what they really mean is they would like to have a scene exist so they can have fun in it but they don’t want to build it.
It’s mainly my whole point that I want to have a scene, too, just like everyone else. But I’m going to go out there and do it. And that’s what I need to see: people coming out and actually, physically doing it. It should grow as people grow and not become so closed so that when new blood arrives there is no room.
And you have to work your ass off to keep it from falling down, because it’s not going to stand up by itself.”
What I get from volunteering is an awareness that I can do more, and a willingness to give. I get to join with a fun team, who are willing to make personal sacrifices and work towards a higher purpose. I learn about other people, about myself, and how I relate to other people.
Most of all I get to see and recognize the limitations that I put on myself. Learning to recognize and overcome those self-imposed limitations provides a spiritual transformation that gives me what I need to show up for other people in my community and grow.
Asking for help is one of the hardest things to do in our society. The icons of the self-made man, the singular hero, the army of one are common themes in cinema. Keeping people isolated is profitable to certain corporate interests who cater to fill the gap left by persons being alone.
One very important training that men receive in teams is to learn to not do things alone, to work as a team. The very first task given to the men on the new training team is impossible to do alone, although men try. Many men struggle with the taboo of asking for help.
Because asking for help is so alien to men’s experience, so difficult for men to do, Men’s Teams teach men how to ask for help.
The cost of doing things alone is very high in our society. Historically societies have always worked together to get things done – hospitals, fire safety, libraries, postal service are all ancient examples of teamwork written large.
Not being able or not knowing how to ask for help can be painful and spiritually poisonous.
Once while walking home I found a grocery bag full of kittens in a trash can. The kittens had been recently born. Their eyes were still closed.
Outraged, I took the bag of kittens home. I bought a can of condensed milk and attempted to feed the kittens, but the milk fell out of their mouths and made a mess.
I started to call for help. I called the ASPCA. At first they didn’t answer at all and when they did they said they don’t help with abandoned kittens. The local veterinary clinics also said they would not help me with the kittens. The local pet stores also did not want abandoned kittens.
Finally I called an organic pet store and they gave me the number of a woman who they said might help me. I called the woman and told her my story of how i found the kittens. She was silent on the phone and I thought she was angry and maybe crazy.
I told her about trying to feed the kittens with condensed milk. Finally she spoke. “Stop feeding them condensed milk. Their stomachs can’t digest that.” she said. She asked me for my address and I gave it to the crazy cat lady.
The cat lady came over in a car and gave me a tiny baby bottle for kittens and half a can of powdered kitten milk. She showed me how to mix the powdered milk with water and feed the kittens. They drank the kitten milk!
The cat lady came back a week later with more kitten milk. We kept in touch and I fed the kittens and weaned them over six weeks. They crawled out of the kitten box and pooped all over my bedroom and I litter-box trained them. Then the cat woman came and took my kittens to the rich part of Queens and gave them away to new homes.
I’ve often thought about whoever it was who put the kittens into the trash. How desperate they must have been. How soul sickeningly out of options they must have felt. So ashamed and guilty. So alone and unable to ask for help.
On Saturday September 17th the NYC Department of Sanitation held a Queens SAFE Disposal Event at the parking lot of Astoria Park.
SAFE is an acronym which stand for “Solvents, Automotive, Flammable, Electronics”.
The purpose is to collect electronic trash which is illegal to throw out through street trash removal in New York City.
I had been storing old computers for over a year, hoping an event like this would occur in the neighborhood so when I heard about the special trash day I made a plan to cart my old electronic gear over there to ditch it.
Not far from Astoria Park, I carted my old mac and monitor over in a manhattan-style shopping cart. I was surprised when I got there to find police directing traffic at Astoria Park south and 21st. St., a block away.
There was a traffic jam of cars lined up waiting to circle through and unload their electronic waste.
I rolled in to the receiving area for walk-ins and hand over my gear. After an opportunity for a photo with the trashies I walk over to see the bigger operation.
Cars were circling through the parking lot which was full of garbage that was already collected. Big semi trucks were lined up to haul it away.
I spoke to representatives at the event. They said they will hold a similar event next year.
I think that the city needs to hold these events more often. There is obviously a need and a desire by people to do the right thing and dispose toxic electronic gear properly.
There are other events scheduled for other neighborhoods this year.
For more information, visit the City of New York at NYC.gov
Another resource is GrowNYC
GrowNYC is the sustainability resource for New Yorkers
Swimming at Astoria Pool ended last week and the pool has been drained. I swim in the adult swimming program. I swim with the Early Birds in the morning and the Night Owls in the evening. This year I earned a 25-mile t-shirt in each but I did not win a trophy.
Last year I won third place at the Night Owls. The trophies were beautiful this year so I regret not winning one.
I never won any trophies growing up and when I first won a trophy many years ago I thought it was rather silly to get one in mid-life.
I’ve learned to compete and care about winning the trophies. Another man almost beat me a couple of years ago and I put on the steam to win. Winning matters to me now.
The New York City Pool Program has an awards ceremony at the end of the season to give out the t-shirts and trophies. It is a slightly cheesy affair at Hamilton Fish Pool in Manhattan, always with food catered by Katz, a relay race, a synchronized swimming performance and a musician. We love it because we get to be together and share the moment.
The swimmers who come every year to Astoria Pool get to know one another. We don’t talk much during the season. It’s hard to talk when swimming. So the Awards Ceremony is a great occasion to congratulate each other.
Astoria Pool is the largest pool in New York. Constructed in the 1930’s It is outside, in the park and just a fabulous ruin.
The swimmers from Astoria always comprise the largest contingent at the Awards Ceremony. This year I counted 45 names listed in the program bill winning 25-mile shirts from Astoria. Five people such as myself swim in both morning and evening programs. Yay Astoria!
We’re the biggest group of swimmers by far. They should have the awards party at our pool.
We have a potluck party at Astoria Pool to thank the staff and schmooze one last time. This year I made egg burritos for the Early Birds, and spicy chicken strips for the Night Owls. Other people brought candies, cakes, cookies, coffee. Most of the food is hand-made by the swimmers.
After it is over I’m sad to see the summer go, but glad as well to move on to other things. Work, learning and new things to do.
Next summer will come and so will we. Old friends and new, the Swimming Birds at Astoria Pool.
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