Friday, March 23, 2012

Walking While Black

The first time my son Charlie was profiled, he was nine years old. A city kid, it would be a year before he was allowed to navigate the streets unaccompanied, and even then just to go to the deli next door to our building to pick up a forgotten ingredient for dinner, a snack -- maybe a pack of Skittles -- his father or I hanging out the window and watching him every step of the way.

This particular afternoon, well over a decade ago, we were on the way home from school, me and Charlie and Henry and Dinah, making the subway trip from Midtown to Washington Heights, in a city where the neighborhood school can be at the end of a commute in a subway car shared by investment bankers hauling Underwood briefcases and nine year olds toting NY Yankee backpacks.

The kids had snacks. Chips, maybe, or Starbursts, or Skittles. Whatever it was, Charlie finished and I sent him down the subway platform to throw away his trash. Maybe 50 feet away? I never was good at distances. I probably gave him his brother and sister’s trash to toss, too … since Charlie is the oldest, the bulk of the chores have always fallen to him. Dinah was still young enough that I would never have let go of her hand on a subway platform, Henry had learned to hover comfortably below the radar, so the responsibility fell to Charlie, and I don’t remember for sure, but I am sure he looked quite grown up when I sent him down the platform.

He had just tossed the trash when the train started coming. And Charlie started jogging back towards me, a slow trot. And I saw two cops standing by the newspaper stand spot him. And what they saw was not a fancy private school third grader trotting back to his mother before the train pulled into the station. What they saw was a black youth running. Their faces reflected suspicion, and perhaps something darker. And I … raised by Charlie’s grandmother to never ever make a scene ... I yelled at full lung capacity “CHARLES! STOP RUNNING!!” The cops’ attention diverted to me, their faces relaxed, the spell was broken as I hustled the other kids to Charlie and we boarded, just another family taking the A-Train.

Within minutes, Charlie was enthralled in his Gameboy, oblivious. I was still shaking. And that night, Charlie’s father and I had to sit him (and seven year old Henry) down for The Talk. No, you may not run wild like your little white friends. Yes, if a police officer stops you, you keep your hands in sight and and your eyes on the badge. Memorize that number and keep your mouth shut and we’ll deal with your “rights” later, when you are home safe. Charlie and Henry listened the same way they listened to rules about separating the laundry before dumping it into the machine, accepting without question, breaking my heart into a billion pieces.

It is a deep, sodden sadness that curled up in my chest and has never left me, stirred by every Sean Bell, by every Ramarley Graham, by every Trayvon Martin. I try to summon feelings of anger, but they’re always overcome by this sadness. I try to muster an argument when people point out that George Zimmermann ... the man who confronted and gunned down a boy carrying Skittles and is walking free on a claim of self-defense ... that George Zimmerman is Hispanic, so he “can’t be racist.” I try to counter that one of the cops who profiled my kid was blacker than Wesley Snipes, but there is this sadness. I try to give a fuck when I read articles by well-meaning people aware of their white privilege, who point out that that they and their sons can wear all the hoodies they want and not get profiled as being anything but casual, that they understand. I’m too sad to care about their sons; this isn’t about them. I read about gun control, about stand and deliver … no, that’s Adam Ant … about “stand your ground,” and I think guns don’t kill people, walking while black kills people. Or maybe it’s Skittles. I just want it to stop.

I’m writing this partly because I think it might help the sadness to write it out, but also because friends keep asking how I’m doing with the Trayvon Martin thing, and I want to say I’m sad but it’s not about me. I keep thinking about how Trayvon’s mother feels hearing him called “every mother’s son.” Trayvon was *her* son, *her* kid who went down the road for a snack and ended up in the wrong place, the wrong time, the wrong color, calling to her for help. Walking while black.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Learning to Knit (Late February 2003)

Five days after the fire, Sam and I return to our apartment to begin the process of sorting. We had envisioned sorting through ashes, but what we encounter is the apartment that we evacuated last Sunday. The walls are there, the floors, the photos, the rugs, the books, the sofa, the computer, the TV, the potatoes on the stove, the kale in the sink. We tell ourselves we are lucky, that everything is intact. Then it becomes clear that everything is covered in that thick black film of smoke residue, a residue that permeates, a residue that doesn’t come off with dusting or washing or scouring or three cycles at the laundromat. We tell ourselves we are lucky, that our family is intact, and the rest is just stuff. The process of sorting turns into the process of dumping.

Once my possessions are depersonalized into stuff, the dumping process is alarmingly easy. I am ruthless: hardcover books are saved; paperbacks, unless they are school books, are dumped. The dining room table and my bed frame are saved; the IKEA sofas are dumped. Photographs, some framed, some in albums, most shoved haphazardly into kitchen drawers – saved. The massive collection of record albums I have been hanging onto without a turntable to play them on – dumped. The closets are swept of every article of clothing except two leather jackets, my wedding dress, and a blue sequined number that belonged to my mother. Everything else goes in big black garbage bags with the uncooked kale and the semi-boiled potatoes from Sunday supper.

I am zipping along, almost exhilarated, when I come to my yarn. Bags and Bags of soft wooly string, collected over nearly twenty years of knitting. For me, knitting is more than a hobby – it is my comfort, my bubble bath, my martini, my escape. I feel an enormous sense of satisfaction in taking two pointy sticks and those balls of soft wooly string and tangling up something tangible. As I toss out my yarn stash, the thick black film of smoke residue embedded in the soft wooly string, I forget about how lucky I am, and I weep selfishly over my stuff.

* * *

When people approach me while I’m knitting in public, they sometimes ask, “Why do you knit?” My stock answer: “What else would I do with these pointy sticks?” More often they approach with a comment: “I could never do that.” I always assure them they can: “If you could learn to read, you can learn to knit.”

Many of my friends who knit have warm fuzzy memories of learning at their mother’s knee, of knitting as an art passed lovingly down through generations. My own mother thought knitting was a colossal waste of time, that perfectly good sweaters were easily obtainable from the sales rack at Lord and Taylor’s. I was thirty-three years old when I finally learned how to knit after several abortive attempts to teach myself from incomprehensible diagrams in books. I signed up for an adult education class at the old Stuyvesant High School on 21st Street, where my teacher was Mrs. Jacqueline DuPres.

Mrs. DuPres was a tiny, shockingly buxom woman who teetered on 3-inch heels. Warm and fuzzy she was not, but for her day job, Mrs. DuPres taught typing and remedial reading in the NYC public school system, which was part of what made her a perfect knitting teacher. Reading is the purposeful untangling of letters to decipher a pattern; knitting is the purposeful tangling of yarn to make a pattern. For Mrs. DuPres, process was more important than product. The typist in Mrs. DuPres loved the mechanics of knitting. She reminded us again and again that there are only two stitches to master, the knit and the purl, and that once those two stitches are accomplished, they can be combined in an infinite number of ways. In the first classes, Mrs. DuPres scoffed at the magazine patterns we brought to her, hoping to make a recognizable garment. Instead, she had us practice on square after square, ripping them out and starting over again until our stitches were second nature.

In reading, the work moves from left to right; in knitting, from right to left. The knitter starts with a needle full of stitches in the left hand, moves the stitches one by one to the right needle, switches hands and starts again. The needle in the right hand pokes through the front of the stitch on the left hand needle. The yarn is wrapped around the back, coming down between the two needles. The right needle swivels under the left and lifts the stitch up and off. Over and over, Mrs. DuPres recited a rhyme in her nasal singsong, a mantra that runs through my head to this day whenever I pick up my pointy sticks: “In through the front door, sneak around the back, peek through the window, and off jumps Jack.” As the stitches became second nature, knitting became a form of meditation.

Mrs. DuPres taught us to read our knitting, to correct our mistakes. By the end of the course, she allowed us to tackle commercial patterns but actively encouraged us to forget the directions and make up our own. She warned us off scarves, counseling that we would die of boredom before they were ever finished. My first completed, self-designed garment ws a tiny pair of overalls for my tiny son, the beloved baby I gladly fled every Wednesday night to escape to Mrs. Dupres’ class. No pastels for my Charlie – I swaddled him in black yarn shot through with flecks of red, blue and yellow. Sixteen years later, Charlie’s overalls were the one piece of knitting I saved in the aftermath of the fire; I’ve washed them several times but they still smell like they’ve spent the weekend at a Boy Scout jamboree.

* * *

I am lucky to belong to a generous community of people who have rallied around us since the fire. I’ve been offered clothing, food, and shelter, but the most wonderful gift I’ve received is the bag of yarn a woman I barely know left in my office, a woman I barely know but who knits, and who knows what a fellow knitter needs. The other night, when I woke up in a borrowed bed in a borrowed apartment, I retreated to the borrowed sofa with my two pointy sticks and a ball of wooly string. “In through the front door, sneak around the back, peek through the window, and off jumps Jack.” This time, I’m making a scarf. Maybe by the time I finish it I’ll be back home.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Sunday Supper (February 2, 2003)

Mr. Fliegel, my sixth grade teacher, once told me that you can’t write a story where you put a turkey in the oven without taking the turkey out of the oven before the end of the story. This story starts with Sunday supper. The main course in question is not a turkey, but a potato and kale casserole. It is seven o’clock on the evening of February 2, 2003. Sam Decker is in the kitchen preparing dinner for the family. He is grating cheese on a warped wooden cutting board on the counter next to the stove, where the potatoes are boiling. The kale is washed and in a colander in the sink, ready to go. A buttered white casserole sits next to the cutting board.

It is a Sunday evening like so many others. Sam Decker is in the kitchen; the other Deckers are spread around the seven room apartment. From front to back, from youngest to oldest: Dinah is doing homework in the dining room, her books and papers strewn across the polished table, headphones over her ears. Henry and Charlie are in their bedroom glued to a video game. I am in my bedroom curled up on the beat-up sofa, half of my attention on the files I am reading for work, the other half listening to the television, waiting for the stop watch tick that signals the start of 60 Minutes. The three cats, Judy and Lola and Betty, are lounging on my bed. Somewhere near the front of the apartment, the dogs, Pink and Miss Joan Rosen, bark a “someone is at the door” warning. And Sam’s voice moves down the hall, calm but pitched a notch too high. “OK,” he says, “Everybody get out. There’s a fire.”

We gather shoes and coats and leash the dogs and go out in the hallway. With our neighbors we move towards the stairs. There is smoke coming out of the apartment at the head of the staircase, and the firemen are already there, and they tell us to go back. I am the daughter of a cop; I respect authority. It is not until much later, in the middle of that first night spent on someone’s beat up sofa, that I think about the World Trade Center, about Tower Two, about the people who stayed at their desks while the world collapsed beneath their feet.

So we go back to our apartment. We wander, calm but pitched a notch higher. I try to remember what to do in a fire. It seems silly to crawl, so I wet towels; I wait for the firemen. The fire escape is in the front of the apartment, off Dinah’s room. The smoke is stronger there. The firemen said to stay. I wait for the firemen. I wet more towels. We move the kids and the dogs towards the back of the apartment. I go to the closet for the cat carrier, then remember I gave it away. I can’t find the cats. I wet more towels.

I move to the front of the apartment to block the door. It’s only been five minutes since the firemen told us to go back but the smoke is so thick I can barely see, I can barely breathe. As I stuff my towels under the door I glance up, and the calm leaves me as I see thick black smoke billowing through the walls like fog rolling down a hill. I cannot see, I cannot breathe. I take a lungful of smoke, thick black and viscous as oil slicked water. The calm returns as I realize I have to keep my children alive, keep them from drowning in smoke.

We gather – Sam and me and Charlie and Henry and Dinah and Pink and Joan – in the boys’ bedroom at the very back of the apartment. Sam is on the cell phone. I hear him use the word “trapped.” Dinah is weeping for Betty, her favorite cat. I clutch her hand tightly, afraid she will bolt into the smoke. I am beginning to make choices. I assure her that Judy and Lola and Betty have found a safe spot, that cats are smart, that they will be fine. If I am lying, it is a white lie. To keep calm I have to believe it is the truth.

I herd my children to the window, where there is air but no escape. We are on the sixth floor, the top floor. The only fire escape is in the front of the apartment, drowned in smoke. I glance over my shoulder and see the smoke creeping under the bedroom door. I lean out the window and call for help. There is a crowd below staring at me screaming, and I feel silly. I lock eyes with a fireman on the ground. “Stay where you are,” he calls. His voice is calm. I stop screaming and wait for the firemen.

I have watched news footage of people being evacuated from apartments on fire truck ladders. I have watched with fleeting interest, my main though being “I could never do that.” But the thing is, when the ladder is there, when there is smoke at your back, you do it. When there is smoke at your back, even if you have no respect for authority, you do exactly as you are told. The hard part is making choices, realizing that only one person goes down the ladder at a time. The hard part is deciding who goes first.

Last summer, on vacation, the Deckers devised a system for taking showers when returning sandy from a day at the beach. We went in age order, youngest to oldest, with Dinah going first.

My fireman’s name is Patrick, and his eyes are icy blue and calm. He takes Dinah down the ladder, then Henry, then Charlie. And then it is me and Sam. I am one year and five months older than Sam, and last summer, a thousand summers ago, I always took the last shower. Now, he gently pushes me towards Patrick. “I’m the Dad,” says Sam Decker, and makes me go before him.

Patrick talks to me all the way down the ladder. He grabs one ankle and places it on a rung, then the other. “Don’t look down,” he says. I have no idea how long it takes. I feel silly in my pajamas and heavy coat, shamed in Patrick’s icy calm presence. “I’m sorry my butt’s in your face,” I babble, “it’s not my best angle.” “Don’t look down,” he says, placing one ankle on a rung, then the other.

I join my children on the ground. Dinah had been weeping as she went through the window in Patrick’s arms, but now she is calm. Someone has wrapped her in a blanket, put a cap on her head at a jaunty angle, handed her a Coke. A young girl I have never seen before and will probably never see again hugs me, offers water, a place to sleep. In the days to come I will continue to be awed by simple acts of kindness from strangers.

Dinah is ten, but her eyes are as wide and wondering as a two-year-old as she looks up the ladder at her father, framed in smoke at the window, waiting for Patrick. Charlie and Henry are 16 and 10, respectively. In two years, Charlie will be old enough to fight in a war. If we lived in Louisiana, Henry would be two years away from a learner’s permit. Now, on the ground, staring at their father framed in smoke, these are my babies.

The crowd keeps a respectful distance as my children and I watch Patrick guide Sam down the ladder. I note with inordinate pride that Sam needs no one to grab and place his ankles; he moves swiftly and steadily to join his family on the ground, away from the smoke. Reunited, the Deckers stand at the corner of 181st Street and Fort Washington Avenue, in front of the churchyard, across the street from our burning building. The flames, thankfully, are on the courtyard side; we can’t see them. We watch the smoke billowing from the windows of what I hope we can still call our home.

Patrick does not go back for the dogs; firemen make choices, too. We respect the firemen and watch the smoke billow from Dinah’s room, from the dining room, from the living room, from the kitchen, from the bathroom. Sam tells us that he put Pink and Joan on the bottom bunk of the boys’ bed and told them to stay. He assures us the smoke isn’t so bad in that back bedroom, that they’ll be OK. If he is lying, it is a white lie.

Sam takes the children to a neighbor’s house down the street and comes back to watch the smoke. A fireman I have never seen before, not Patrick, assures us that when he was checking apartments for people he saw our dogs, that they are OK. Do firemen tell white lies? We watch the smoke for three hours, then go to a nearby church where our displaced neighbors have gathered. I have walked by this church countless times since we moved to the neighborhood 11 years ago, but I have never been inside. There are old folks in bathrobes, babies in strollers, dogs without leashes, cats in carriers, a bird in a cage. It is very quiet.

The Red Cross arrives and we register as disaster victims. A Fire Marshall comes in to tell us the situation is under control; Sam goes back for the dogs. I follow a few minutes later and wait for a long time until Sam emerges with Pink and Joan on leash, greasy and stinky but alarmingly perky. Sam has tears on his cheeks. He explains that it took so long because the fireman who took him up helped him find the cats. Lola and Betty didn’t make it, and Judy was nowhere to be seen.

The children are asleep when Sam and I get to the friends down the street who have offered to put us up. I spend the first of many nights on someone else’s couch. In the middle of the night I get up to blow my nose. The tissue is black.





* * *

Question: if you had five minutes to grab what is important to you from what used to be your home, what would you take? I took my wedding album and the files I had been reading for work. Sam, for reasons only he could explain, grabbed a container of deodorant. He was reaching into his closet when he leapt back as if he had been burned. There was an outraged “Meow,” and Judy, who was always the smartest kitty if not the sweetest, emerged from the pile of sweaters she had burrowed herself in. She barely smelled of smoke. As I carried her from the apartment, I stopped in the kitchen for a towel to wrap her in. The cheese sat on a warped wooden cutting board on the counter next to the stove, where the potatoes still sat in the pot. The kale was in a colander in the sink. The buttered white casserole was next to the cutting board. Everything was ready to go, except it was covered by a thick film of black smoke residue.

There you go, Mr. Fliegel – the turkey is out of the oven.



Sunday, September 11, 2011

Out of the Blue

It begins with the bluest sky…I looked up at the sky so many times that day, and each time I was struck by how clear blue it was.

I was working in the Admissions Office at the Ethical Culture School on 63rd Street and Central Park West. It was the Tuesday after Labor Day, the second day of school. Our office was closest to the front door. Even before that morning, we used to blackjoke that when the terrorists came (or a disgruntled parent), we would be the first to go. Within days we would be opening the mail wearing latex gloves. A parent came in and said a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. By the time the second plane hit, when everything changed, there was a line of parents waiting to use our office phones since cell phone service had crashed along with the planes.

We had the most up-to-date student roster and began crosschecking parent work addresses. There was a newly admitted parent working in Tower 2, the single mother of twin boys sitting in Kindergarten classrooms on their second day of school ever. The absurdity of the NYC private school admissions world seeped throughout that morning, before security closed the doors to all but currently enrolled parents, as applicant parents for September 2002 continued to drop off their paperwork, even as the Pentagon was hit, even as a plane was headed for the White House, even as the world was ending.

Mid-morning, the twins’ mother stumbled in to pick up her boys. She had decided spontaneously to play hooky from work that day. There would be so many stories like that: hooky played, alarms that didn’t go off, trains missed. In the end, out of our family roster of 1600, we lost two. A smaller school a few blocks north with a large contingent of Cantor Fitzgerald employees lost 17.

I am grateful for many things about that morning. One is that I had no visuals of what was happening. The other is that I was busy…as much as I complain about work, I am grateful I had a job to do, helping our Principal--fresh from rural Maine, second day on the job--dismiss children to their parents and caregivers. My daughter was in the same building as me; my two boys some distance away at the high school campus in the Bronx. Since I was busy, I didn’t have much time to panic when I heard that all bridges to Manhattan were being sealed off…I was able to reach their father, my husband at the time, on the other side of that bridge in Westchester, and on his way to get them, so at least two sections of the Decker family would be together.


***

While memories of that morning are crystal clear, like that blue sky, they come in fragments. A friend, an investment banker, arriving at school on his bicycle and handing me an envelope with $100 in it “just in case.” He was the first to think about the ATM machines maybe going down.Taking Dinah to the supermarket on the corner to buy snacks, just like it was any typical day after school…except there was the panic buying that precedes any potential disaster in NYC (snowstorm hurricane blackout)…bread and milk and water, milk and water and bread…except there was none of the chattycrabby NYer camaraderie that usually accompanies the panic buy…people were silent as they loaded their carts. I also clearly remember the lights being out in that Gristedes, although I cannot imagine why that would have been.


The only moment of genuine fear: hearing planes fly low overhead. US fighter planes scrambling, I would learn later; but at that moment, peering into the impossibly blue sky, being genuinely afraid.


***

I remember a colleague poised in the doorway, announcing that the subways were open. Grabbing Dinah to head home, without a thought of potential danger on the subways, the only goal to get home without having to walk the 120 blocks with a 9 year old whiny in the best of circumstances. On the subway, that same stunned silence as in the supermarket. And for the first time, the sight of ghostly people covered in a silt of dust and ashes, the detritus of destruction.

On the North end of the city, Sam Decker and the boys had ditched the car at the connecting bridge from the Bronx to Manhattan and started the relatively short two mile walk home. Proving his mettle as a genuine NYer, Henry Decker, the ever resourceful middle child, stepped out in the street with his arm raised and nabbed what was probably the last active yellow cab in the City.

And then we were all home.

***

The images are the part I can’t process. Planes slicing buildings. Buildings collapsing onto themselves. People fleeing a rolling cloud of debris like a Japanese horror movie monster, that impossibly blue sky at the top of the screen. Always, always The Falling Man, bodies littering the sky like big black birds. And the guilt a few days later, driving across the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey, looking downtown and trying to remember exactly in the cityscape where the WTC stood. And I couldn’t picture it. And no matter how many beams of light they throw up in the sky, I still can’t.


***

It’s a matter of perspective. We spent the preceding Summer of 2001 on Prince Edward Island. While it was (and remains) the most physically beautiful place I’ve ever been, we had a hard time cracking the reserve of the Canadians, who seemed impervious to our well-behaved children, our overtures at conversation, our considerable charm. When we went back in the Summer of 2002, the waitress at the oyster dock where we’d eaten without remark several times during our last stay rushed to our table to greet us by name. “Oh, it’s the Deckers from New York City…we were all so worried about you!” I was genuinely puzzled until I realized she was referring to 9/11.


In the days immediately following, we got a hysterical phone call from a friend in California, a frantic e-mail from a friend in Germany. Each time I had to remind myself that it’s a matter of perspective. If you were in Germany, they attacked the U.S. If you were in California, they attacked New York. If you were above 14th Street, they attacked downtown. An East Village friend describes the first plane flying so low that the tree tops rustled in Tompkins Square Park.

I am peripherally attached to three people who died; I attended one funeral. I can’t imagine that there is anyone living in NYC on September 11, 2001 who wasn’t at least peripherally connected to someone who died. I count myself lucky every time I think about it that I didn’t know any of these people well enough to think about what they were thinking about when they were dying.

I’m writing this because a friend not from NYC asked me a couple of weeks ago for my 9/11 story. In fact, when someone finds out you’re from NYC, the question inevitably comes up, 10 years after. Where were you? And I’ve always groped for an answer beyond a nod. Where else would I be?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Sarah's Zigzag Cowl--FO


Finished for 2009: a requested cowl for DS's girl, from this lovely pattern available for free download on Ravelry. Love that hemmed picot edge. Yarn: Brooks Farm Four Play, size 5 needle.
Stop me before I cowl again (too late; there's another one on the needles).

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Wrapping it Up


A couple of F.O.'s to finish off 2008. First, the Highland Fog, a nice warm cowl hoodie thing, worked in Lyra, a really warm and luxe alpaca, merino and silk blend from Spirit Trail Fiberworks (yarn and pattern available here). Size 7 needles, followed pattern as written but sort of faked my way through the crab stitch crochet edging.
Hearbreak Cowl FO1
Also done, Am I Blue (The Heartbreak Cowl), based on this lovely pattern by Sandra Park. I modified it for the DK weight Alchemy Silk Purse I used, casting on 99 stitches and using a size 7 needle; could have gone with even fewer stitches since it turned out to be very drapey, more of a wrap and pin rather than a stand-up and hug the neck kind of cowl. Still, it served its purpose; project name is self-explanatory and I don't want to talk about it. Sob.
Simple lace but, as always, markers helped. Notes for placement in pattern...Round 1: Place beginning marker, k2, then place 8 markers at asteriks; remove markers on Round 9 to facilitate K2 togs., replace on Round 1.
This was my New Beginnings Project for the Knitters Review Retreat. Onward to 2009, which I hope to make the Year of the Sweater.

Monday, December 08, 2008

On the Needles; In the Works



Working on a few things: about halfway through the Highland Fog Hoodie from Spirit Trail, about halfway through another cowl, and about halfway through my little 2-at-a-time practice socks, which I seem to be sort of getting the hang of (mind you, I haven't turned the heel yet). In the planning stages: by request, a washcloth for DS modeled on an avatar he sent. This will require (gulp) intarsia. Also by request, a scarf for his girl (cowl is the new scarf, and hopefully there's no attendant curse). And an extra speshul sooperexclusive something for my Rubbernecker swapee on Ravelry. Little things all, but I'ma be a busy bee until the holidaze. Oh, and I forgot to mention I won something: a really nice pattern (another cowl...heh) from ever green knits. Check out her blog; gorgeous stuff!