Blogger… Testing, One, Two, Three…

I was relieved to read a Huffington Post story today which says that Blogger is once again up and running, after about 24 hours of downtime.  The timing was bad for me, because on and off last night, I tried to log in here and post something.  I alternated between frustration at not being able to post, and worry that what I’ve posted here previously had gone up in smoke.  I briefly flirted with the idea that this was no accident, some minimum-wage computer jockey hitting the wrong key.  A character in David Byrne’s True Stories said it best:

The Trilateral Commission and The Council on Foreign Relations.  Ever hear of them?  Well, neither did I until I noticed the Chain of Coincidence…  Do you run out of Kleenex, paper towels, and toilet paper at the same time?  You know it’s true!

I will be more convinced of conspiracy if Blogger crashes on May 31, the holy day of obligation for diarists, both Internet and pen-and-paper.  (On that day, in 1669, Samuel Pepys discontinued his famous journal, out of the mistaken fear he was going blind.)

I shudder at how the late Robert Shields would have reacted if he had used Blogger.  After all, he recorded every aspect of every moment of every day, spending hours per day at his IBM Wheelwriter.

This page from April 1994 represents one of the more fascinating days in the life of Robert Shields, former United Church of Christ minister, educator, poet, and compulsive diarist.

One of the things I wanted to write about was directly experiencing the less desirable side of this neighborhood.  Sunday afternoon, after church, I walked to the main library, a walk of about 2½ miles.  For some reason, the walk didn’t invigorate me or give me its usual second wind, so I took the bus home.  As I was walking up E. 7th Ave. toward the alley behind my house, I noticed about six or seven kids, both boys and girls, ranging in age from six to about 11, standing around talking, playing with a basketball, sitting on their bikes, etc.  Since the weather has warmed, this is not at all uncommon in this neighborhood, so I barely noticed it.

That changed when one of the littler boys, who I think was about seven, broke away from the pack and began following me up the alley.  I wasn’t sure what he wanted, but he kept drawing closer and closer to me as I walked.  (If we had been playing shadow tag, he would have tagged me several times over.)  Before I could ask what he was doing, he stepped up, balled his fist, and struck me on the thigh.  It didn’t hurt; and I would barely have noticed it if I hadn’t been looking at him.  Giggling, he turned around and ran like mad back to his friends.

My guess is that he was doing it on a dare.  He escaped too quickly, and I was in a bit of a hurry to get home because I needed to get to a bathroom, but I’ve played over possible reactions in my head endlessly since late Sunday afternoon.  I even posted a question about it on Yahoo! Answers.  The responses varied from “kick the kid up the shitter–he’ll respect you after that” to chasing after him.  Two possibilities tied for first with me.  I envisioned sitting him down and saying, “Now why did you do that?  Do you know me?  Have I ever hurt you or done anything bad to you?”  The other possibility was picking him up by the arms and legs and wordlessly dropping him in the nearest trash barrel and then going on my way.

Tuesday night, there was a fire–probably set–a block and a half away from our house.  I was finishing up dinner a little before 9:30.  (Steph and Susie ate earlier; I was at the Discovery Exchange until it closed at 8, and then came back to Weinland Park by bus.  Susie had choir rehearsal, but a fellow chorister’s dad drove her to and from practice.)   I was in the kitchen putting my dirty dishes in the sink when I began hearing one siren after another, in very rapid succession.  I looked out the window and saw that fire trucks were going by.  Not only were they going by, they were parking, all their lights flashing and revolving.  I stepped out onto the back porch and saw a thick black column of smoke coming from very nearby.

I put on my shoes and went out to see what was happening.  At first, there were thin clouds of smoke drifting through the alley, but the wind was blowing them away.  I wasn’t coughing or choking, but it was causing my eyes to water.

All I had to do was follow the sounds and the crowds, and the fire was in a vacant frame duplex at the corner of N. 5th St. and E. 7th Ave.  (Numbered streets in Columbus are the exact opposite of streets in Manhattan.  In Columbus, the streets are north-south and the avenues are east-west.)  Yet another fire on N. 5th St.  When I was first scouting out the neighborhood for rentals, I noticed there were several burned-out houses and properties in a two- or three-block length, all of them on 5th.  I went through the Ohio Web Library’s online newspaper index, and saw that the Columbus Fire Department suspected arson in almost every case.  This blog features pictures of several recent fires in the area, some of which I completely missed.

There are arsonists, and there are arsonists.  In the case of these properties, my prime suspects are always owners burning down their properties for the insurance once they started hemorrhaging money–which has not been unusual since the sub-prime mortgage crisis began in 2007.  (I wonder how one goes about hiring a professional arsonist.  My guess is that they don’t advertise on Craigslist.)  This type of arsonist is despicable, but I see him as more of an annoyance, until the houses around mine start going up in flames.

The type of arsonist that truly scares me is the bona fide pyromaniac.  This is the kind of person who gets a true psychological and/or sexual rush from setting or seeing fires.  If it’s flammable (inflammable–the two words mean the same thing), they’ll try to burn it.  Once the fire is going, they’ll sit back and watch it, like a teenager sneaking looks at online porn or hentai.  This is the type of arsonist who thinks with his glands.  He (statistically, they are almost all male) will set a fire, consequences be damned.  (The only literary portrayal of such a person that immediately comes to mind is the Trashcan Man in Stephen King’s The Stand.)

It is past 1 a.m. right now, and my next-door neighbors are going full blast.  To try and block out all the noise they’re making with the shouting back and forth (usually to people who are sitting/standing within millimeters of one another), I’ve put on my music.  Currently I’m playing “And He Shall Purify the Sons of Levi,” from Handel’s Messiah.  It reminds me of another hot night, during the summer of 1986.  My good friend, the late Adam Bradley, and I had been to a few bars and decided to enlighten and illuminate some of the people on the street.

We took our “mission” to some of the seedier parts of nocturnal Columbus.  As we drove past places like the New James Café (on S. High St., an all-night restaurant whose cheap but filling victuals I truly miss) or the now-departed (and unmissed) Earl’s Bar, we put his car tape deck up to maximum and would blast sacred music, all of it joyous.  We made one pass trailing Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and came back around with Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” Vivaldi’s Gloria, and the old standby, “Hallelujah” from The Messiah–I wasn’t sure if they could Handel appreciate it.

The music on my laptop switched from “And He Shall Purify” to Parliament’s “Give up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker),” but I skipped to something else, feeling that hearing that will only make my neighbors rowdier.  The next song that popped up was The Iguanas’ “Boom Boom Boom,” which I once cynically described as Weinland Park’s national anthem. 

One Holiday and a Funeral

On Monday, I was off work because of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.  However, instead of sleeping until I finally decided to haul myself out of bed, I went to the funeral of Jean Bradley, aged 85, the mother of my friend Adam Bradley, who passed away in June 1997.  I learned about her passing during church Sunday, and immediately made plans to go to her memorial service, which was held at the church Monday morning.

My first order of business was to call my friend Tom in Marietta, because he had been close to Jean (closer than I was since Adam died).  Tom, in fact, had been with me the May 1986 night when I had met Adam on High St.  Tom and I had gone to a late movie at Ohio State University that evening, and went from bar to bar along High until closing time, and were walking to our respective apartments (I lived downtown, he lived in German Village at the time).  Adam was walking behind us, plugged into something I had said, and replied to it.  We ended up sitting on the front steps of an apartment building talking and debating until almost dawn.

Jean had been ill for some time, in and out of hospitals after a series of minor strokes.  She never completely recovered from Adam’s death, although she channeled her grief into advocacy for the mentally ill.  Adam battled a plethora of mental-health issues for much of his adult life, and was such a regular at emergency rooms and urgent-care clinics that it was hard for many medical professionals to take him seriously.

But activism was already in Jean’s blood.  She worked phone banks and door-to-door canvasses endlessly for Democratic candidates on all levels, spearheaded literacy programs in Franklin County, and used her job at Job and Family Services to connect people to jobs all over Ohio.

I was sitting at the memorial service with Dave Wilkin, who was a longtime friend of Adam’s and a classmate of Adam’s younger sister Lisa.  (Dave was the video photographer at my wedding, and lives in Grandview.)  As the service got under way, both Dave and I glanced toward the rear doors of the Worship Center, wondering when Tom would arrive, taking it for granted that he would be late.  (Thinking Tom will be late for something is like assuming Benedict XVI’s successor will be Catholic.)

Rev. Mark Belletini, the senior minister at First UU, led the service along with Rabbi Lenny Sarko of Congregation Am Brit, a new Reform synagogue in Dublin.  Sure enough, as people took the microphone to reminisce about Jean, I turned toward the back of the Worship Center and there was Tom.  He was sitting down, but he looked like he was out of his breath.  (It was just like my mother’s memorial service in the church’s Scatter Garden in the fall of 2008.  Mark was just drawing breath to start the service when I glanced down W. Weisheimer Road and saw Tom’s pickup truck screeching around the corner and driving like mad toward the church’s parking lot.  “Mark,” I whispered, “hang on for just a second.”)

After a reception in Fellowship Hall, I rode with Dave to Green Lawn Cemetery on the West Side.  (I rode with Dave because Tom had too many of his personal belongings piled up onto the passenger seat of his pickup truck, which is 100% in character for him.)  We arrived first, before any of the other mourners (including Jean’s surviving children, Lisa and Seth, and their spouses).  Instead of paying our respects at the graves of George H.W. Bush’s grandfather, Eddie Rickenbacker, or James Rhodes, we drove around the cemetery trying to find Jean’s grave.  Dave drove while I craned my neck looking for tombstones with Stars of David or Hebrew epitaphs.  Finally, a worker driving a steam shovel was able to tell us where, and he led us (including Tom, who had followed closely behind us in his tailgate-less white pickup) to the spot, where we were the first to arrive.

I was honored to be one of Jean’s pallbearers, although I was pressed into service at the very last minute.  The funeral director directed everyone as they slid Jean’s coffin out of the hearse, and as he reached for the rail, Dick Dawson, our church’s chaplain, made eye contact with me and gestured for me to come over and help.  I have only been a pallbearer on one other occasion, when my dad died in 2000.  At the time, I was just getting over a minor coronary event (essentially, a small heart attack), and my stepmother was worried that I was physically not up to doing it.  I told her that I probably shouldn’t, but I’d regret it the rest of my life if I didn’t.

The burial service definitely has a way of shocking a mourner into understanding that their beloved has died.  I had been at this very cemetery on a very hot June day in 1997, when we laid Adam to rest, so I knew to expect this particular practice, but it still has a very sobering effect.  (“Sobering” was a word a friend of mine used to describe the rows and rows of white crosses on the Normandy beach when he visited Europe.  I never understood how much that word covered until Monday.)  Once the coffin was lowered into the ground, the rabbi instructed each of us to take a turn scattering a shovelful of dirt onto the lid.  This was, he explained, a way of reminding everyone that death is very real.  “I can’t believe he/she is dead” is something we all hear at viewings, funerals, and burials.  When you hold a shovel in your hand, and scatter it onto the lid of a box containing the remains of someone you know… you believe it after that, no question.

Dave, Tom, and I also made a stop at Adam’s nearby grave, the first time I had visited it since he died.  (I had made another attempt to find it years earlier, but had come to Green Lawn when there was no one at the office to tell me the location of the grave.)  Adam is buried next to his brother Darrow, who died at age two.

After everyone had dispersed (Lisa and her husband were catching a flight back to New York, and Seth and his wife were staying in town overnight), Tom said, “You guys hungry?”  After some debate, we agreed to go to the China Buffet on N. High St.  (There was a bit of debate–as there always is with Tom.  He was holding out for the MCL Cafeteria in Upper Arlington, but Dave and I pointed out that, being under 85 and not part of the blue-rinse crowd, we wouldn’t be welcome there.)

That was still part of our way of honoring Jean.  It brought three friends together who don’t see one another all that often, and we feted ourselves for hours, as all of us had done with Adam, right in that very restaurant.  I devoured several plates of food and God knows how many cups of Diet Pepsi, and we stayed until the hostess rolled us because it was time for the dinner hour to begin.

I was glad to be able to finally see Adam’s grave, a simple headstone with his full name, the dates of his birth and death, and a simple Star of David.  He died while Steph was pregnant with Susie, and I still feel the loss even now.  I have his one posthumously published book, Seeking Love and Death: Poems, as well as a trade paperback of The Complete Poetry of John Milton which he gave me on my 32nd birthday in 1995.

Earlier in 1995, he gave me a journal, which he inscribed inside the front cover.  On my many visits to him when I lived in Cincinnati, he often saw me sitting at the table or in a restaurant or bar booth with the diary open and a pen in my hand, and as a belated Christmas gift, he presented me with a notebook to be used once my current volume was finished.  I have scanned the inscription inside the front cover, as well as the front cover, and am displaying it below:

During the final season of NYPD Blue, an episode called “The Vision Thing” ran.  It was the most thought-provoking episode I had seen, especially the scene when world-weary and jaded detective Andy Sipowicz holds a locker-room conversation with the shade of his friend and partner Bobby Simone, who had died tragically of a heart infection (over five episodes!) at the start of the sixth season.

Above is a YouTube clip of the conversation between Andy and Bobby’s spirit.  As I watched that, I asked myself, Who would I want to return to me like that, if such a thing were possible?  (I leave questions about the afterlife to people with far more leisure time than I have.)  It didn’t take me long to decide that it would be Adam.  It would not be my father–the longer since he died, the more I realize what a bastard he truly was.  Robert Lowry would be a close second, although I am sure he would have carried all his bitterness to the grave with him.