Vote of Consciousness

Mark Lefkowitz & the Busy Bees /  ee-aye ee-aye oh
We’re always fast & we’re never slow /  ee-aye ee-aye oh
With Lori as the Vice /Everything will be precise / Everything will be just nice
Mark Lefkowitz & the Busy Bees /  eeee-ayyyye eeee-ayyyye ohhhhh!

Music, trad.  Lyrics: possibly by  Barry Levy  &/or David Breger (aged 9/10)


The lyric above was the campaign song from when Mark Lefkowitz and I were the “Busy Bee”  ticket for our 4th Grade class election.  If memory serves, the opposing ticket was the “Eager Beavers”, but I can’t remember who they ran.  I can’t even remember who won, which is pretty shocking as this was the one and only time I ever ran for school — or any — office. What I do remember (other than that campaign song, which lodges like a recumbent virus in my brain  cells) is that this was run as much like a real election as possible, with campaign managers, songs, posters, speeches….everything. Which meant a lot of people were involved.  As we were a class of about 36 kids (one of four such in the school, at the height of the Baby Boom), I can’t imagine how few unaffiliated voters there might have been to decide the election.

I stumbled across this memory today, because today is Primary Day in New York.  I live in the same city neighborhood where I grew up, so I vote in what was my elementary school. This morning, I left the house at 6:30 am to vote before going to work.  At that hour, there are few enough people in the streets that after a while they fade out and I find myself walking through the past.  What happens when I reach the corner of 71st Road is that I start to hear another song in my head.  When we were in 2nd grade, my friend Dini Callas and I were allowed to walk to school together “alone.”  At some point, one of our mothers had warned us “no dilly-dallying”, and the way kids have of taking up any phrase that amuses them, we’d turned it into a jingle, which we sang as we skipped along.  Today, I walked briskly, truly alone but with that silly song ringing in my ears.   I crossed that intersection, where a walk/don’t walk sign has replaced the barrel-chested red-faced policeman in his brass-buttoned blue tunic.

I kept walking, down the side street that still has the same “one family houses” as it did back then.  In an area that was primarily apartment buildings before my birth, this was a distinction then and is more of a distinction now.  One of those buildings used to have a rose bush out front.  It was the first rose bush I remember in my life.  It was a beautiful rich dark pink, almost red, and I thought I could smell it even leaning from the respectful distance of the sidewalk.  My second rose bush, the one in the yard of my father’s friends Arlene and Hank, was the one that taught me about thorns.

Across the street, where there is now the nursery school portion of a Jewish Center, there were once a few old houses.  They were torn down when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade, leaving nothing but their stoops and foundations.  One of them, someone found had, had been Helen Keller’s last home.  This was fascinating.  Coming back to school after lunch, if we were early enough, we’d sit on the stoop that was still left and try to talk to each other in sign language that we’d learned from the back of the juvenile biography in the library.  Today I can still spell out W-A-T-E-R.

I reached the school.  It was a fairly new building when I started there, and hasn’t been drastically changed in half a century.  Today, the footprint of my kindergarten room is sprouting I-beams and a sign proudly announcing a new school addition to be open in 2012.   My 2nd, 3rd/4th and 5th grade classrooms all faced the street.  They, at least, looked the same — there’s still artwork taped to them.

Usually I vote in the auditorium, or in what in my day was Mrs. Levy’s room.  I never had Mrs. Levy, but my sister did.  It’s always a shock to walk around the small desks and spot the interloping computers in the back of the room.  I also miss the old blackboards and the shiny-surfaced chalk that you only ever found in school and never in the stores.  This year however, voting was downstairs in the basement which means entering the building from the side door.  There’s a patch of grass — and to call it a patch is only being accurate — where there used to be a handful of bulbs.  Maybe there still are; it’s hard to know in September.  Those were my first daffodils.  Once

I spotted a robin hopping around them.  And yes, that was my first real “robin redbreast.” Entering that door, you’re immediately in the stairwell.  As instructed by the signs, I started down them for the first time in decades.  My first grade classroom was down there.  The stairwell was wide enough for kids to walk double-file, but it’s narrow enough for me to walk with both hands on opposite banisters.  When I was in first grade, on Parent’s Visiting Day, our school was visited by a reporter from one of the New York City dailies.   I can’t remember why, but I can easily find out; I still have the clipping, because in the picture they chose to publish with the article, the photographer had me framed in the foreground.  You can imagine my family’s pride.  After that year, since I didn’t eat lunch in school, I only ever went downstairs when we had gym.

This year, New York introduced paper ballots.  It’s a simple, user-friendly system of filling in the ovals with a black pen (I guess #2 pencils are too easy to tamper with) and scanning the page. It was so early when I got there, that there were few votes as yet; most of the people present were working the polls and buzzing together at their tables along the room’s periphery.  I signed into my district, picked up my ballot, and walked to one of the many empty “privacy” booths. I switched on the light, pulled out the thoughtfully-provided magnifying sheet and put on my reading glasses.

One of the rooms upstairs was where my results with a standard eye chart inspired a teacher to have my parents take me for my first glasses, and in the same room I first learned How Government Works.  A few yards from where I was standing  was the very room in which I’d learned to read.   In rooms throughout this building, I’d filled in lots of ovals on forms like the one in front of me now.  And in this building, I’d once run for office myself.  Seven years in this building had prepared me for the task in front of me.  I picked up the pen, and with a silent salute to my childhood, I performed the adult civic duty it was my right, privilege and responsibility to perform.

Se-Souvenire de

I just got out of the shower and slipped on a memory.  It’s my hot weather post-subway ritual, to cool my skin by taking a shower with Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap and then, while still just a bit damp, wrap myself in this yukata.  For five minutes, maybe ten, I feel not only cool but also serene.  I cross the bridge from the work day to my truer life.

It’s just a long thin sheet of navy blue cotton, with an asymmetrical white pattern that mimics woodblock prints.  An ordinary summer kimono.  Very ordinary.  You could buy something like it in thousands of shops around the world, at least a quarter of which are probably named something like “Oriental Bazaar.”  In fact, I bought this one in a shop called Oriental Bazaar.  But that Oriental Bazaar was in Toyko, and that’s what makes this yukata so special to me.  Each and every time I wear this yukata, I recall picking it out from piles of similar ones at the Oriental Bazaar.  I remember that afterwards, the end of an exhausting day, my friends and I found a sushi bar near the train station, a sushi bar with a conveyor belt from which we daringly selected random plates and our conversation consisted mostly of “no, that one’s not the eel, the eel is the one on the green plate.”

On the other side of the day, before we’d ended up at the Oriental Bazaar, we’d visited the Meiji shrine.  In my memory, I see the cool silvery-brown of the Torii and can almost feel my fingers touching the wood.  I see an elegant minimalism, nature respectfully tamed by light and empty spaces.  A family, the women dressed in elaborate kimono, bringing a new born child.  And in the park, the iris garden, tortoises in a pond, and a man making his own calm in watercolour.

That same day began with my friends and I waking up on our futons in the hotel in Itzukogen.  On the way to the train, we bought hot coffee in cans at the station shop, a shop that carried everything from dried fish to Hello Kitty keychains.  Next door was the little bakery where we had not yet figured out which pastry was filled with what, but that was fine with us.  We sat in the train, sipping from our cans and eating our pastries, until we got to Atami where we could switch from the spur line to the Tokyo train.  We made this trip for six days, because wherever we wanted to go, we always had to change at Atami.  On this day, the second trip, we already felt experienced and were emboldened to walked the market for the first time and stare eagerly at everything that was on offer.  I try, but can’t remember if this was the same day we bought the white peaches that came individually wrapped in tissue paper.

This is why we call them “souvenirs”, those things we bring back from trips.  It almost doesn’t matter what they are, but the best souvenirs are the things we actually use because in handling them, we go back to the time and place when we first picked them up and we remember.

By the way, my Dr. Bronner’s is a kind of souvenir, too.  I remember the first bottle I bought, one sticky week in Poughkeepsie, my sophomore year of college…

Time’s Carcass

“We should not say that one man’s hour is worth another man’s hour, but rather that one man during an hour is worth just much as another man during an hour.  Time is everything, man is nothing; he is at the most time’s carcass.”    Karl Marx

An episode from my 1990 travel journal was brought to mind by anticipating Audrey Niffenegger’s new novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, which is set around Highgate Cemetery:

“You shouldn’t have to pay to go to a cemetery,” the pensioner said with a grin that made the most of his three remaining teeth.  He lifted the chicken wire fence a meter off the ground….

An unemployed actor, I was making a short visit to London on horded pennies and had decided it was a waste of money to take a bus from the tube station.  Trekking stubbornly trekked uphill, against the wind, I must have made a turn I shouldn’t have.   After more than the 10-15 minutes the guidebooks implied, along roads that seemed oddly deserted for midday, I found myself near what looked like the back end of some cemetery — but not necessarily the famous one I was looking for.  Two shabby men were deep in conversation on the street. They were the first people I’d seen since getting off the train. If there had been only one, or if they’d been standing in front of a pub, I might not have had the nerve to approach, but as there were the two and it was a library, I asked if they could tell me where to find the entrance to Highgate Cemetery.

The more animated of the two, a grey man in a duffle coat of uncertain color and a raveled muffler, eyed me from head to toe.  Taking in my too-thin sweater, long black skirts and boots as dusty as his own, he must must have judged me more of a pilgrim than a tourist.  Travel in jeans and running shoes, and the logo on your jacket might as well say ‘Made in USA – Rip Me Off or Lead Me Astray.”  Me, I disappear into the scenery.

“The main gate is up the road, but I can show you my own particular way.”  He winked and led me around to where the tower block was hidden from the random visitor.  I’m not guessing these were council flats — I know they were because along the way he told me so, together with his thoughts on unemployment, disaffected youth and Mrs. Thatcher’s government.

We crossed an empty cement courtyard, where a few abandoned bicycles rusted gently under the scrubby trees.  I didn’t see another living soul.  Where was he leading me, this character out of Dickens, with his carbuncular nose and fingerless gloves?  “Nearly there,” he winked again.  “Now when you get in, you don’t go telling anyone how you got there.  If they found out about this hold, they’d be after closing it up.”

I don’t know what I’d been thinking, but this was the first I realized he was sneaking me in.  I started explaining that I’d been looking for a regular entrance, that I was okay with an admission fee, but he was insistent.  “You shouldn’t have to pay to go into a cemetery,” he said and he lifted the chicken wire a meter off the ground.  “With all they collect, the upkeep is shocking,” he added, by way of making his case.

I ducked under the fence, yanking my skirt out from under the portcullis as he let the fence back down.  I was facing what looked to be a construction site.  Surely this wasn’t the grand Victorian mortuary garden I’d read about?  Was he trying to teach me some kind of lesson?

“This here’s the new part over this way,” he nodded reassuringly.  “They’ve been doing some digging up.  Mind how you go.”

“Thank you,” I started to say.

“No thanks,” he said, “but what you could do is pay your respects to Karl Marx.”  He pointed over my head at the far corner of the section.  “You’ll find him alright.  You can’t miss him.”

He was right; it was impossible to miss that big black stone head.  I quickly paid the admission fee my particular gatekeeper had asked, then rambled the grounds for several hours in search of residents I wanted to visit for my own sake.

That was 19 years ago.  The hole is certainly closed up by now, and the cemetery’s  upkeep is no longer shocking, so I don’t think I’m betraying a trust to set this down where it can be read.  Whether my pensioner is still doing gentle battle for his ideals or is by now himself resting in some quiet plot, I send him my respects.