Archive for August, 2010

Proof Positive of Bi-Partisanship…

August 31, 2010

So.  Here we are, 2 years into the great slog.  2 years into the Obama Administration’s legislative agenda we once had hoped would represent an epic era of change — that would make everything right again.  An era where truth and wisdom, and righteous and thoughtful leadership would beat back the bad guys and their evil ways – and would shine the beacon of rekindled hope for the world to follow, back into prosperity and dignity and self respect – and fairness and goodness for all.  Nope. It’s a slog.

And for those of us who were kind of hoping for definitive legislation cleaning up Bush era messes – including righting the healthcare wrongs that had made health in this country unaffordable to most, and a stretch for all…and shutting down the banking/securities egregious gang bang abuse of the economy – well, not only “not so much” but, “not at all” — seems to be the case. Because, after looking at what all that “hell for leather” process finally generated…it seems nothing has really changed.  We got hustled again.  Well, how the hell did that happen?

I’ll tell you how it happened.  It’s very simple and very obvious really — if you just spend a half a second to think about it.  In a massive swell of bipartisan collaboration, the esteemed leadership of the both the House and Senate (and the White House, maybe even) agreed to keep the real and needed and substantive change — that would go a long way towards fixing the healthcare and financial systems of this country – out of consideration — before the legislative process was even started.  How bipartisan is that, huh?

And remarkably, all those items that had been identified as being the most important parts of the legislation being considered (public option; too big to fail; default swap oversight; etc) – were exactly the pieces that were kept out of the legislative debate. They were also the same pieces that the banking/securities and healthcare industries have been lobbying to keep out of the legislation when it was clear the American people were sick and tired of having their lives destroyed by greedy little men manipulating the system to get way more than their share of the marbles. 

Imagine.  Republicans and Democrats working together seamlessly toward common objectives.  Not that we ever saw it.  Nope, what we saw was the contrived shit storm of legislative plate spinning and the artfully contrived illusion of internecine statecraft warfare — crafted to make us believe that something of value was being done – and to lead us to believe that the loss of the key change elements in the final bills   weren’t there…because they got ground up in the “give and take” legislative process.  Well, that’s just pure bullshit. 

Bullshit because they weren’t on the table at the outset! They were off the table — because our senior elected officials on both sides of the aisle – those, who hold the key committee assignments – in whom we have placed our greatest trust — never allowed them to be considered as part of the legislative packages in development. Deals done behind closed doors, in the dark of night. And, the banking lobbyists…and the healthcare lobbyists…and lobbyists representing all the related companies involved in the free-for-all legislative process – just couldn’t be happier.  All the money they had spent on campaign financing — on trips and junkets, on PAC funded legislation influencing, and in filling coffers — once or twice removed  from discovery — for all these years – was well spent.  And here we are…left with what every decent AA member knows as a pile of “half measures”…that will “avail us nothing”.  Pure smoke and bullshit.  Hustled by the “bought and sold”.  These people belong in jail. They really do.

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The first black person I ever knew…

August 13, 2010

The first black person I ever came in contact with was Lucy Morris. She was my grandmother’s maid.  She lived with the McDonagh family from her teens forward.  She was somewhere around 50 when I first remember her.  She was sweet and completely ungrudging and guileless.  She was gentle with us.  Mostly, in the beginning she made us Pepperidge Farm white bread toast with lots of butter on it, when we’d come to visit or to stop by to be seen by Grandmother.  She was very black and quite homely…but she was sweet and dear and laughed in that sing-songy southern way that today I would expect was the voice of the indentured South.  My, oh my… Yes indeed… Oh dear lord…

I have no idea where Lucy was from.  South somewhere I’m sure.  But I just knew her as someone who was clearly not from anywhere I knew but was simply a part of the tangle of people in my family’s life within the New York backdrop — who was always there with my grandmother…who had very broad and flat feet and who wore old pink slippers, and shuffled, and who also wore a maids uniform.  And that my mother and her sisters (my aunts) loved her “as part of the family”.  Because, it seems, she snuck cigarettes with them and taught them about playing the “numbers” and about sneaking a drink every once in a while. And each of them had let me know that they had shared deepest confidences with her…and that somehow established a bond that was at least equal to the bond of true family.  I knew, because I was told from quite an early age, she was a good but unremarkable cook.  And that she always had kept the houses/apartments clean and straightened – (Englewood, New Rochelle, or out in Quogue…or in the apartment on East 83rd Street). 

She was as different and foreign to me as one could be…but we “loved” her because my mother and her sisters did…and we were not ever afraid.  And we never questioned why it was that she served us dinner that  she had made for the family…and that she ate in the kitchen while we ate in the formal dining room…and that it was she that was summoned by buzzer or bell to bring seconds or dessert or to clear.  Frequently one of us children would be told to help clear the table with her…and then we felt that in some natural but conspiratorial way we shared some of Lucy’s isolation and apartness.  That for the briefest of interludes we shared a tiny piece of the space she lived in. My strongest recollection and image of her was sitting at the kitchen table my dad had made…on one of the grey stools that surrounded it…small and uniformed…smoking a cigarette.  Mister Joe and Lucy J Morris.  I knew nothing of her life beyond her presence and her sweet nothings and the little tiny bit she’d let us see about her life in New York and about her early life…which she didn’t talk about, hardly at all.  But she is buried in the McDonagh family plot.  Aunt Jean will be the last of that era to be committed to the hallowed grounds of Gate of Heaven…and she’s 87.  She was just a couple of years younger than Lucy…who was 18 when jean was 8.

And Lucy J Morris, loved, beloved and part of the family – and separate and isolated – and sweet and guileless and good…was but one of a small host of black women who served us as servants and maids and cooks.  Black women who wore uniforms. 

Augusta Saunders was Aunt Mary’s maid for much of her life…and she came to our house occasionally when I was in High School after Aunt Mary left the Congress and her Washington DC power apartment in the Broadmore and moved to Greenwich…and later after Aunt Mary died Ma would have her come to the house for special occasions.  She made chocolate soufflé and popovers.  And she was  older and tall and slender and just slightly regal in her uniform. She moved with grace slowly around the kitchen and the dinner table.  She was always nice and gentle and quiet and private…and as long as I knew her I didn’t know her at all…beyond that she was beloved by Aunt Mary and by my Mother and her sisters…because she was part of the fabric of their lives in connection with Aunt Mary…when each of the lived in DC with her.  She was always there for them. Cooking and cleaning and straightening up. But never was she credited with having uttered a useful thought.

I rode with her to Aunt Mary’s funeral in New Jersey along with Aunt Jean and Pat McCormick.  She was regal and in civilian clothes – complete with a fox stole…and a fitted ribbon hat. She had a great deal to say about Aunt Mary…having lived with her throughout her career in the Congress…but she didn’t say much at all.  Wasn’t her place to talk about what was really going on during those years on the Hill.

And then in a wind down of that era, my Mom continued to “get help” when needed — to help with taking care of household and cooking stuff when things got overwhelming in the house — what with 6 kids and Aunt Jean…and Ms. Muriel who was Greg and Sally’s nanny…and dear Grandy (my mother’s mother) who lived with us during the mid/late 50s. 

The help periodically included one Rosa Dabnee – who was the very first black maid who had more than one dimension to me. Rosa was beautiful actually.  She was also not black black.  She was coffee colored black. And she had freckles. And she had a son and a husband and she lived in NY — and she had a life outside of her “maidness”.  She sang some.  Popular songs.  And her son was a pal of Harry Belefonte’s who, despite all the lies positioning him as a troubadour from the islands, was actually a Harlem boy who Rosa knew well.  Rosa was 3 dimensional to me.  I didn’t know her well – but that wasn’t because she didn’t have dimensions…rather because I was a pubescent teen who didn’t stop to ask. 

Last of the line of black maids was Lillian Turlington — a huge and very black southern woman who wore a seam stressed uniform and lived just off our kitchen, in the “maids quarters” — which Terry and I later inhabited after the days of live-in help had disappeared from our family. Lillian could cook southern fried chicken better than anyone else on earth.  She was also private, and quiet and sweet and sing-songy.  And seemed angry and resentful, I always suspected. 

It was getting close to that time where things were changing.  And she had a seventeen year old daughter who stayed with us for a while as well.  Off  the kitchen.  She was pretty pretty and just a couple of years older than I was…and it was very clear that she was very much a whole person entity.  But she never let on either.  Said nothing.  Was transparent around the house, and was private – and nice.  And troubled…as I recollect…and angry. And I have this haunting recollection that she was in college or was going to go.  But maybe that was HS. But in any event, I sensed she was ashamed that her mother was a maid and that she had to turn to her for help…or to escape perhaps.  I never knew. But it was very clear to the 15 year old boy that I was…that the daughter would never consider…even for a second…being a maid or a domestic.  Those days were over…and it was clear she hated what her mother did (was forced to do through lack of options). I wish I had gotten to know her better.  But I was 15.  And she, as much as she hated the very thought of it, “knew her place”…and wasn’t going to jeopardize her mother’s job.  They were very poor.

And when black women in uniforms didn’t come to the house anymore (though a cheerful bright and industrious black woman named Ruby did come to help my Mother with the house work once a week) –then we managed to do our own cooking and cleaning and straightening up.  Things had changed that much.  People didn’t have help anymore. 

Well, maybe a gardener like Cecil if you needed someone to do things that just weren’t going to get done otherwise.  Cecil, who rode a red bike with a wagon hitched to the back of it for his tools….was very large and very black and sweet and gentle man…and also was southern singsongy like our maids – but who also was a thinking man — who was extraordinarily well read and who knew about almost everything it seems.  And he was a philosopher.  And he liked me because I worked along with him and could keep up.  And because I listened to him.  And saw his wisdom and valued it.  He taught me things…mostly to reason and to trust reflected judgment.  And to embrace it when it was right. 

Cecil was like Socrates to me.  Socrates on a red bike and with a sweet high pitched sing-songy voice — that spoke truth and knew it was when it was.  And kept questioning when he didn’t feel it wasn’t truth yet.  A black man with dimensions I hadn’t found in anyone else in my world up to that point with the possible exception of Uncle Jol.  I loved Jol with all my heart.  Cecil was smarter.

In Shoreham when I was maybe 7 or 8 years old and was going to the Shoreham one room school house…I was befriended by a black boy named Howard Johnson.  He was the only black person in our little one room schoolhouse – and was the only black kid who was close to my age that I ever spoke with and played with.  Ever.  Howard was at least one grade ahead of me…and he was bigger than I was, and heavier – and he may well have been the only boy (nee person) in his grade.  There were only 3 of us in my grade.  And for some unknown reason – Howard liked me and chose to make me his friend.  I always felt that Howard knew a great deal more about life than he was letting on with us at school.  I couldn’t tell you why then…but I later discovered that the Johnsons were migrant workers who followed the planting and harvesting cycle around the North Eastern seaboard and stayed on a farm in Rocky Point (our adjoining town)after the harvesting was done a couple of years back to back.  Howard was no dumbie…and his mother made sure that he was going to get whatever education was available to get (which is why she decided to stay “up north” after the harvest (potatoes and cauliflower) rather than returning back to south. School.

I was positive that Howard Johnson was named after his Dad — who was also named Howard Johnson — who owned the ice cream store named Howard Johnsons that sat along the highway off of Route 25A  on the way into New York.  He never denied it.  And I knew he was just being modest.  He teamed up with me to read out loud to each other — and do art work projects.  On my birthday, Howard gave me a pen that was made out of plastic and was triangular in shape and had three different colors of ink in it.  It was his prized and most important possession…and he gave it to me because I was his friend and it was my birthday.  I still love Howard for giving me his pen because I was his friend and because he wanted me to have it.  I saved it in a top drawer of my bureau for years after the ink ran out.  It was small and purple…and the inks were red green and black.  And one day, Howard never showed up at school again.  And no one ever said anything about why he wasn’t coming anymore or where he had gone.  My one black friend growing up.  And I had no idea that what was so normal for us in Shoreham simply didn’t exist in Connecticut.  13 to 17.

Blacks were either nonexistent in my life — or were so close inside, and so taken for granted, that they were completely transparent.  But that didn’t keep me from adopting stereotypes and prejudices…and fears.  I had nothing to stop their entry into my consciousness.  You just know these things growing up.  You know that blacks (or colored people back in those days) lived on an entirely different plain than we did. They did what they did and lived where they lived and ate what they ate, and went to school where the went…and we lived in our universe where we did what we did.  The plains never crossed or connected. 

We saw each other driving through town (parts of town more realistically – where they lived)…and listened to them speak and watched them interact – and saw stereotypical evidence of differences – and sensed the span of the great divide — when it was presented to us.  And we knew that everything would be OK if we stayed apart and separate.    And then there was Dee Dee Chapman in 7th grade when we moved to Greenwich when I was turning 13 years old.  And Dee Dee was a Negro person I had never seen before.  Dee Dee was light brown…with light brown kinky hair which he kept short.  And he was in every other respect a popular fun bright 7th grade kid who was indistinguishable from all the other 7th graders…except that he was light brown and had kinky hair.  Dee Dee wore good clothes, spoke perfect English, was cheerful and bright and up…and played a trumpet like a professional jazz musician.  He was the only really accomplished musician in my orbit in 7th grade.  That changed the whole picture for me. Entirely.  I don’t suspect that Dee Dee ever had any idea of what his presence in my life in 7th grade meant to me…and how I started thinking about what role class divide and cultural suppression had to do with the way people are treated and are thought about…and about what essential fairness did to even the playing field. 

The separation still breaks my heart.  Obama is my today’s Dee Dee.  And mean spirited men are trying to erase his presence.

My Dad the President

August 5, 2010

I grew up thinking my Dad would have been a great President.  He was, without question, the smartest man on earth (at least within my definition of the then known world)…he was incredibly reasoned and reflectively thoughtful…and pristinely organized in the way he presented what he knew.  He knew about everything – and in great detail. He had a predigious memory for everything. He told us it was his job to know about everything that was going on in the world…because his job (then Senior Council for Texaco) demanded that he know a lot about everything.  He read at least 3 papers a day.  I mean, he actually read them.  And he read Fortune and several other business journals every week…and always consumed Time Magazine cover to cover (his bathroom reading). He knew things.  Everything.  And he had reasoned points of view and opinions about everything he considered worthy of forming a point of view about.

But he didn’t blab.  Dad kept his points of view and opinions pretty much to himself, unless he felt it needed to be offered for consideration…or, it was his job to have, and pro-offer, a point of view or an opinion on something.  Or, maybe that it needed to be talked about at the dining room table by the assembled family. When he did, it almost always won the day.  He was almost always right.

My Dad was a highly controlled man.  Not controlling…but controlled.  He thought before he spoke.  He never let his emotions get in the way of his ability to effectively reason his way through a discussion…or to get riled in a more heated discourse.  He stayed reasonable and calm and logical and deductively contained.  He could speak with passion and with strength of conviction – but it never came out like rhetoric or bombast.  Ever.  But you surely knew when he really meant it.  And when he really meant it, he was listened to…because people knew, that almost always, his presentation and organization of facts and logical and deductive presentation of points of view — and of the opinions based on the arrayed logic and facts – carried the day.  He was just like that.

What gave my Dad the credibility and stature in his world — was his conscious commitment to being a worthy person.  He did nothing that wasn’t ethical, moral, or within the boundaries of civil and social deportment.  And he never told a lie — at least I never knew of anyone who ever could say they caught him even expanding the truth a little to shade a sense of things – or to inflate people’s impression of him or his ability or worthiness (which were indeed considerable).  My Dad was a completely good and honest man…who was a totally faithful husband, a generous and true and honest provider for his family and its extensions. And he had a strong innate sense of fairness.  He landed squarely on hard decisions if he felt they were the right ones.  He challenged pressures to do things that were ethically questionable – or that contained consequences that others refused to address or deal with. And he wasn’t afraid in doing so.  Ever.  He didn’t care how big the people were he was challenging or how big the personal risk taken was. He never made a big deal out of his position taking.  To him it was merely doing the right and ethical and sensible thing that needed to be done.  It was just what he did.

My Dad lead people by being himself.  By example.  Implicitly.  Never explicitly. He never waved his own banner.  That would have been out of character and unseemly.  He just did what needed to be done…as well as he knew how to. And if what he did generated some heat…well, that was ok.  Not everyone is on the same page when it comes to the way they view life.  People may not like it…but that’s just the way it is.

My Dad was not an overtly warm man.  He loved objectively more than subjectively.  He was pretty much a man of his era.  He loved his family, jointly and severally…but with restrained emotion. He believed in working hard and to the best of his abilities.  He raised his own bar as high as it could go when it came to business ethics – and being informed and right when making judgment decisions that effected people and businesses (Dad was an early SEC Commissioner – appointed during the Roosevelt era).  He was a willing participant in civic and church communities. And he felt how you carried and deported yourself was a personal responsibilty that one has to the community they live in. He never said “role model”…but that’s what he meant. It was a duty to my dad, to deport yourself properly and to do your share of things civically.   Particularly if you had needed skills and talents in areas where help was required. 

And while not a necessarily warm man, Dad was a strong “family man” insisting that we all went to church together and that we celebrated holidays and holy days together and traditionally — as a family.  And while a little maladroit, he really tried to establish relationships with each of his 6 kids…and to make sure that we each got what we needed to get launched into life.  He really cared about the people we would become.

And the whole time as I was growing up I thought my Dad would have been a perfect President – because he was smart and ethical to the core of his being…and knew everything there was to know — and had clear and logical perspectives and understandings of issues, and about life matters, that seemed to need sorting out by an infinitely fair man that could be trusted completely not to have a duplicitous or devious motivation. Ever. And because he would work tirelessly to get done what could be done – studying complex situations, bringing different sides of issues together — and finding compromises that were  balanced and fair to all…and that worked because they didn’t favor one side too much more than the other.

And I thought he’d have been a great President, because more than anyone I ever knew, he was his own man…and he believed in the obligation to one’s personal integrity — to the point that despite advice and counsel to do things with self serving expediency – he insisted otherwise.  “You can’t play the game the other guy’s way son. You have to play it your own way.  You have to be yourself.  If you try to do it the other guy’s way — you will immediately be recognized as being a liar and a fraud – and as being disingenuous. And as someone who is not to be trusted.”

And I’m kind of thinking these days — that in some sort of way my Dad would approve completely of the man who is President today.  It’s the way Dad would have done it.

That’s what I’m thinking anyway.

Joe