Out Now!

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Christmas in Seattle

I think on my profile it says ‘I like opening doors’. I opened a door on a grey, Sunday afternoon when I was little more than a snotty-nosed kid. Strictly speaking it was a drawer and in it a photograph. I stared at her face for some time. She was beautiful. Then I discovered she was ‘family’ – part of the Henry clan that decamped to America around the time my grandmother died. To this day I don’t know how I acquired the address, but find it I did, and in my best schoolboy scrawl wrote a letter to this beautiful woman, who in my fevered brain I assumed looked much the same as she did in the photograph.

The letter was kindly passed on to a distant cousin, more my own age, and this is how Kathy Kruh, as she was then, and Kathy Mallory as she later became began a correspondence that lasted well over a decade and culminated in our actual meeting - Christmas 1981.

I took the plane from La Guardia and changed at Denver. Denver was the first indication that America was different from New York. People walked about in Cowboy hats and childhood dreams whooped and hollered in a ‘yippee I hey’ I told you so voice.

The plane journey was quick and uneventful Рthree thousand miles measured in four small bottles of whisky and a plastic tray meal. I decided then, that however I spent my summer, it would involve immersing myself in landscape and space. The journey did however give me time to think on how families separate, the sheer scale of our correspondence Рtwo attach̩ cases bursting with letters exploring all our mutual idiocies and aspirations Рand now, in a matter of hours the two of us were at last going to meet.

I can’t put into words the excitement of landing in Seattle – how overwhelmed I was by the warmth of their welcome. Kathy hugged me, took photographs, hugged me again, and the talking began whilst her husband Rick, lean and laconic looked on, her children Kirsten and Garret grinning at all the excitement. They made me feel like a celebrity. Inside I felt like a fraud.

I imagine these pictures convey the experience better than words.

Kathy waiting in Airport

Me, vaguely worried.

Two cousins meeting

Kathy mocking me already!

Meeting the rest of the family

Meeting Kirsten, though it looks like I'm laying on hands. Whatever ailed her, I cured.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Refreshingly astringent

It’s interesting how hunger jogs the memory. I’m hungry now, and thinking of Tina Porcari, not through any cannibalistic intent but because she was one the of the finest and most generous cooks I’ve ever come across. American hospitality is rightly famed, and I was fortunate in that one year to be ‘imbedded’ in America – far less dangerous than the alternative of being ‘imbedded’ in the US Military or any other military force, and far more comfortable.

I want to mention names rather than generalise because it is only through naming that meaningful gratitude is expressed – and there are many names – too many to incorporate in just one post but which may come later.

Tina worked at St Agnes and invited me to her family’s Thanksgiving Dinner. I made my own way to College Point by bus, and with 45 minutes to kill, whetted my appetite in a nearby bar before locating her house and knocking the door.

I thought I had whetted my appetite. I hadn’t. Clearly her family knew something I didn’t. From 3.pm to 8pm we sat in the front room drinking tall glasses of Tom Collins – diluted but in a never ending stream - punctuated by small hot plates of Italian delicacies straight from the kitchen.

In Britain we have a ‘starter’. At Tina’s we had an entire afternoon of ‘starters’ before the main Thanksgiving meal which hit the table at eight. I have never eaten so much in my life – which is saying a lot – and rolled home at about 10 pm, feeling like a force-fed Tweedledum.

Joanne Kirk was the face of St Agnes, usually the first person you saw as you went in, or heard when you phoned. She had a huge smile and a warm, rasping drawl that smothered you in goodwill.

She, too, invited me for dinner, and since it was Saturday May 22nd and my stomach had at last recovered from Tina’s Thanksgiving (never mind Christmas in Seattle) I accepted with alacrity. (alacrity came along for the ride) Her son Leo picked me up outside a bar in Flushing, and there followed another fabulous meal prepared by another wonderful cook. I remember her sister, Mary who had served in Warrington – presumably the giant USAF base at Burtonwood. There she’d known a ‘Father John Daley’ who I’d like to think is the John Daley we know, because from such one-in-fourteen million odds, lottery fortunes are won. Later, Leo took me to a party in the Bronx and at 4 a.m. I ended up in a Diner, with no recollection of how, or why I was there.

On my final weekend in New York - Saturday June 26th - I tried once again to thank Tom Saxon and Bob Lindberg for their immense generosity throughout the year. It was an impulse thing, and met with much the same success as a previous experiment with impulse - the one involving Tripe.

I was in the liquor store facing the Argentinean owner with my fake American persona. I saw three bottles of Greek Retsina on offer, and immediately thoughts of a hot summer’s afternoon and a shady garden, olives, goats cheese and fresh bread came to mind. I didn’t share these thoughts with someone we had just gone to war with, but instead grunted, pointed, and handed over the money with a courteous, American smile.

Tom and Bob joined me later that afternoon. The table was artistically arranged, the sky a faultless blue, but by then I realised why the Retsina was on offer. It tasted like alcoholic aspirin. There was nothing wrong with it. Retsina is supposed to taste like that. It’s marketed as ‘refreshingly astringent’ only I’d never tasted it before, and so learnt, too late, what ‘astringent’ can mean.

Tom raised his glass, and I saw his top lip quiver, his nostrils contract as the Retsina approached. He sipped without comment and made for an olive. Bob’s reaction was slightly different. “Oh…my…God, Michael; what are you trying to do – poison us?” His dry, nasal, New York rasp reverberated through the garden. I imagined windows opening, curious faces, and sighed with relief when Bob made a positive suggestion. ‘Michael, would you be offended if we brought some whisky down?’
I nodded gratefully.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Two New York Schools

In February I visited Henry St school. This was the school where Peter Stassi, a fellow exchange teacher worked, a school with problems that would have broken many schools in Britain – though we, too, have since experienced a steep learning curve.

The fact that one of his students had never heard of either England or Britain, was the least of Peter Stassi’s problems. Muggings were common and security staff patrolled the corridors.

Whilst being shown around, I left my guide’s side barely a moment to investigate a notice board. Almost immediately I was pounced upon by a firm but courteous guard who asked me who I was and what I was doing there.

What impressed me most however was their ‘Special Needs’ provision. Then, in Britain, most schools had just one special needs class in each Year Group, where, irrespective of the cause, all ‘slow’ learners were placed together – the dyslexic sitting next to the ‘naughty’, the autistic sitting next to the screaming off-the-wall extrovert.

At Henry Street, special needs were diagnosed, grouped and taught according to their specific needs – the ‘naughty’ special needs enjoying a tough looking ‘bouncer’ at the back of the class to reinforce authority.

The staff at Henry St were friendly but divided into cliques. Many were Jewish, some gay and all of them surviving by good humour and wit.

To this day I can remember Paul Cohen, a born raconteur, able to transform the sad, the gross, and discipline flashpoints into pure comedy gold. Most of discipline problems involved the penis in one way or another. When a boy demanded to go to the toilet in the middle of a lesson, Paul Cohen recklessly refused. An instant later the boy pulled out a knife. As Paul said, at that point I was willing to unbutton his trousers for him.

Another student expressed his ‘anger issues’ in sexual assault.

A strategy, enthusiastically advocated by one teacher was to create the right ambience. His particularly violent class was soothed by soft music and dim lighting. Paul Cohen tried it. Halfway through the lesson he heard a soft groaning from the back of the class as a boy called Wayne was wanked off by another. The lesson continued after Paul told Wayne to pull up his trousers and the other boy to wash his hands.

It’s interesting how two schools, sharing sharing similar problems, can be a universe apart.

The most impressive school I visited was Sousa Junior High School in the Bronx. This had been a sink school until one man, Dr Hill Wilson Brindle, took over as Principal.

Some men have power; you feel it in the handshake that emits a small electric shock. (I’m sure you could buy a gizmo that did that, advertised between the Charles Atlas advert and the glasses that allowed you to see behind you, near the back of most comics) This man didn’t need a gizmo; you sensed static before your hand made contact. He exuded authority and this was the way he ran his school.

When the bell sounded, students followed a one way system in single file, in silence, and keeping their feet on a painted yellow line. Teachers stood in corridors with folded arms like prison guards, but without the guns. In the dining hall students ate in two shifts, each lasting twenty minutes. A buzzer told them when they could talk and when they couldn’t.

In short it flew against the grain of every progressive idea, except the one and most obvious. This was one of the toughest areas in the entire country, tougher than Henry St. but, in Dr Brindle’s words, you don’t teach anything until you have control. He brought the ethos of the US army into the school and it worked. Grades soared, along with pride and aspiration. Parents wanted their children to come to this particular school, and students on graduating aspired with confidence to more prestigious high schools further away. I’ve never forgotten Sousa High School, nor Dr Hill Wilson Brindle.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

A bad case of religion

I turned to my left. Donald Duck stared back at me. It was a St Agnes Retreat Day, and the theme centred on how all of us hid behind masks. Well, duh. We all dress in the morning, except those who going to walk around naked. I put my mask on – peer pressure prevailing - and spent the day as Bugs Bunny. (It was only an hour but seemed longer) It wasn’t my first experience of playing ‘Happy Christians’ where the well-meaning but earnest put their creative spin on Matthew 18:3 At least there was the buffet to look forward to and Pastries from Flessels.

And there was at St Agnes real warmth, which I didn’t find in St Joan of Ark on 82nd St.

As I remember, my intentions were straightforward. I was new to the area, wanted to get involved in neighbourhood activities, and saw my local parish church as an obvious starting point.

I’ve been to friendlier ATMs, more colourful morgues. The reception point made even the dentist waiting room seem convivial. It was quite a Byzantine process to actually see a priest – who had his mask firmly in place, and it wasn’t Donald Duck.

One thing really got me at St Joan of Arc, and I mentioned it in passing. Electric candles. Banks of them. Enough to fuel a star-ship. All of them encased in red perspex and as exciting as... a light bulb.

There is something beautiful in the physical process of lighting a candle, losing yourself in the sway of a transient light, the shadows cast. As an aid to prayer or meditation, it works for the one who lights it, and for those in its presence. It’s part of an ancient tradition that understands ambience and how the mind works. You don’t get that from the hellish red light of bulbs in Perspex.

And then there’s the transaction. You pay your ten cents, get a candle in return.

In St Joan of Arc, and no doubt many other churches, some of which might be speculating on the advertising revenue of Face-book confessions, you paid your money direct to Con Edison – that well known meditative tool.

Electric candles were bad enough; the rationale was even worse. The priest lowered his voice; spoke as one adult to another. ‘It’s the Hispanics. They like their candles.’ He paused. ‘We had to consider the fire risk.’

St Agnes was run by the Dominican Sisters of Amnityville. This is a picture of the Amnityville House of Horror. No connection, and I imagine the film will be forgotten before the Sisters and their work.