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A Letter to Sadie

I have just come back from a three and a half mile walk. Why? I am just a little bit more serious about long walks. Soon I’ll be pushing a stroller with you in it. Then walks in the park. Then maybe some road-trips to places you want to go. Then, who knows?

I want to be here a long time. Not just for you. That would not be true. I want to see your Father older, happy, smiling at you as you grow up. I want to see your Aunt Sef, my daughter, achieve everything she wants in life. I want to see your Grandmother, forever.

I want to see the family together. Your Father, your Mother, your Aunt, your Grandmother. Together. Again and again and again. And I want to see you. I want to see you crawl and walk and graduate college or learn the arts or whatever it is you want to do, I want to see it. I want to see my granddaughter. I want to see you happy.

As I write this, you are a month before you are born. I have felt you kick, I have talked to you through the wall of the womb. “Hello? Is there anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me. Is there anyone at home?” Yes, Pink Floyd lyrics. If you like Pink Floyd, you can blame me. You heard them in utero.

See, even before you are born, I love you. I can’t help it. Maybe it is biology. Maybe not. It doesn’t matter. I can imagine talking you for walks, playing in parks, seeing things together. Being a good Grandfather.

I’m sure I’ll make as many mistakes as a Grandfather as I made as a father. There are no instructions for either. And I have no role models for it but I’ll do my best.

Last night I was sitting at the kitchen table with your Aunt Sef. She is, as I write this, 25 years old and in pre-med in New York City. I am telling you this because I hope you, unlike me, will know who your family is without having to put puzzles together. In part, that’s why I am writing this letter.

In a chair, near us, is your Grandmother. Dusty is on the couch with Sef’s boyfriend, Joe. Maybe he will be your Uncle. We sort of hope so. Her dog, Godiva, is on the other side of him. On the other couch are your Father and your Mother. She’s kind of on top of him and you are happily warm inside her. You three are startlingly cute together.

Sef and I are going through boxes of pictures brought up by your Great-Grandfather. He doesn’t know who most of the people are. I asked my Mother, your Great-Grandmother, Sheilah, for whom you are named, but by the time the pictures came to my attention, she could not identify some of the people, was unsure of others, changed her mind. Remembering not remembering was hard for her, stressful, upsetting. I let it go.

Really, that’s what this letter is about. It’s about introducing you to your family. And, as time moves on, I will label pictures better, Years, people, events, relations. I’ll do a better job than those before me.

Let’s start before there were pictures.

Your Father’s side of the family is all I can describe, of course. So I’ll talk about your Grandmother and Grandfather, Lee and myself, with that understanding.

Way back, maybe six or seven generations, both families were in Galicia and Galacia. Don’t confuse those. A letter can make a big difference. Language is funny that way, as you’ll discover.

Galicia is in Spain and it borders Portugal. Galacia is in Eastern Europe and it is sort of between Austria and Poland. Both had an awful lot of Jews which is why they got their own names and they got invaded a lot because when Jews live somewhere, it’s treated like no one really lives there.

Your Father is Jewish. I know – it’s hard to tell. See, it’s a religion, yes. It’s a culture too, yes. It is also a race. Sort of. Kind of. No one can tell from your genes if you are Catholic or Baptist or Mormon or Buddhist or what-have-you, but you can tell if you are Jewish. Even if you are a Cohan, Levite or Israelite. Your Father, by the way, is a Cohan, a member of the priesthood, traditionally. I can explain all that to you later. It’s kind of cool and kind of doesn’t matter anymore.

Genes. You can track the genes for the Jewish people for the female lineage by mitochondrial DNA. And for the male lineage by the haplotypes of the Y chromosome. Ok, so you are minus one month old and maybe not up to anthropological genetics. Besides, your Aunt loves genetics and she can explain it to you when you are older and able to understand. When you are four or five maybe.

You Father is Jewish. His entire side of the family is. Here’s how we got here.

Your Great-Great-Grandfather, my Grandfather, my Mother’s father came from England. Albert Cohen. His family was from Galicia. Near Portugal. His last name was Cohen. His family had to leave Galicia and went to Portugal. Had to means the governments said, “Hey, you. Jews. Convert or leave.” Sometimes it was just, “Leave.” And sometimes the request to leave sounded an awful lot like hoof-beats and rifle shots. They settled in Portugal and then they were told to leave again. This was 1496.

They could be forcibly baptized, or killed or leave. They could stay as “Crypto-Jews” which are also called Marranos, which means they outwardly convert but practice in secret. Many Marranos find out centuries later their families are Jewish and that is the reason they have customs and practices that are not quite Christian. Many even practice in cellars as part of their heritage but didn’t know why. Your family chose to leave.

They went to The Netherlands. There they were welcomed and in the 1670s you family helped create The Portuguese Synagogue. There is a lot of history there and we should go see it someday.

In England too. I have a picture of my Grandfather’s father or uncle. I cannot tell. He is the Lord Mayor of Hereford. He is standing next to King George VI and The Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth’s mother. King George is in military uniform. They are on a street, in a group, in one picture. In another, looking at a bomb site. This is WWII Britain.

I never met my Mother’s father. He died of pneumonia when my Mother was a teenager. Or younger. He ended up in England, following his father, I think. Or his Grandfather. I am not sure. But he then came to Canada before WWII and was in the Canadian Forces and fought in that war. He was an electrical engineer. He met your Great-Great-Grandmother. I am not sure how. He became an American.

Looking through the photographs, I find pictures of him. He is in his 40s, maybe. Some in uniform, some not, some in a suit, a wedding picture. I find pictures of his brother, Uncle Dave and his sister, Aunt Jane. Great Uncle and Great-Aunt, actually. Your Great-Great Great Uncle Dave (Wow, three greats) was a jazz musician. He died in the late 1990s. He was amazing on a piano and would tell us stories of all the famous people he played with. He was married to Aunt Ester. We would go over to visit them often when I was small. Less than seven years old. They lived in New York then. They lived in an apartment. Their chihuahua bit me.

When they moved to Florida, as did we, we’d visit them in their home in North Miami. She would give me gin and tonics. I was twelve, thirteen.

Aunt Jane. There is a picture of my Mother with Aunt Jane and Uncle Al. My Mother is in her 20s. Great-Aunt Jane met my Great Uncle Al when they were both 14. He had a pushcart in New York City. He sold various items from it. He met Aunt Jane. They were married 78 years. In their late eighties they would go to the old age homes and play for what Aunt Jane called “The Old People.” Most of them were ten to twenty years younger than they were. Aunt Jane would play the piano and sing and Uncle Al played accordion.

She got sick and died within two weeks. She was in her nineties. That was 2007. Uncle Al took me aside and asked me what he was supposed to do. What do you do without your best friend? He asked me this because, he said, he knew I would understand. I didn’t have a good answer. We just sat. He died in 2009. I still have his number in my phone.

His daughter, Judy, my cousin, lives in New Hampshire.

Your Father met them. He was lucky. Aunt Jane and Uncle Al were two of the nicest, kindest people I had ever met. I believe, if there is no heaven, surely one was created for them.

Back to your Great-Great-Grandfather. Albert Cohen. Here is what my Mother told me about him. He was never cross, never unhappy. There was no day he did not smile.

My Grandmother. My Mother’s mother. I have pictures of my Grandmother with my Grandfather’s parents. I saw a picture of her at the dock when the survivors of the Titanic were brought back. It listed her as a survivor too. She wasn’t. She was just at the right place at the right time and the journalist took her picture, her name, and made an assumption. Her last name was Governor then. It had been changed when she came through Ellis Island. It was Governosa. Ukrainian. Her Grandmother’s last name was Chansky.

Names. You can’t tell a Jew by their name no matter what some people try to tell you. We were pushed, pulled, kicked from so many places. Forced to hide, assimilate, evaporate, leave, relocate. That meant being flexible. So we each had two full names. A Hebrew name and a regular name. We let the regular names go and come as we needed. We didn’t tell anyone about the other names.

So when the border between Poland and The Ukraine shifts east or west, now you are Polish, now you are Ukrainian, today you are Austrian, tomorrow, Slovakian. Pass through Ellis Island and your name is hard to spell. They change your name for you. Let it change. You are lucky to be here. They can still turn you away. Life goes on.

Most ethnic groups have a landscape they can adhere to. It is made of space and mountains and rivers. Not us. Our landscape is made of time.

So Grandma Chansky, as my Grandmother used to call her, came to the US. It wasn’t really by choice. Jews were being expelled from Russia and The Ukraine. In the Pogroms, which were official systematic forced removal of Jews. If you were in the rural areas, by Cossacks. If you were in the cities, by mobs, by not being allowed to hold jobs or go to school or buy bread.

They came to the US. One day, you and I and your Father, at least, should go to Ellis Island. And we should try to get Aunt Sef to go too. She loves to learn about her family and she and I both like research. Sef went by herself one year. And your Grandmother and I, another. Here is what we found in the archives.

Blue Star Line. From Kiev to Buenos Aires, Argentina to the US. My Grandmother, her mother, her sisters. I have pictures of them. Aunt Ann, Aunt Gert, Aunt Ethel. And there are pictures with their husbands much later. Uncle George. Uncle Red. Uncle Murray, whom I adored and still do. I made sure Sef got to meet Aunt Ethel. And she met her Grandmother many times. She missed seeing Uncle Murray. Your Father had not met any of them. All are gone. The links to the old land are gone and nothing is left but time.

He did not meet his Great-Grandmother either. He was very young and she was very sick. She was sick a long time. She did not help herself to not be sick. She was angrier even longer than that. She did not help herself to be not angry either. My Mother told me that, when her father died, her mother became angry and stayed that way. Grandma sure did love me. I know that. But it didn’t help her to not be angry. She died at eighty two or eighty six and she was angry half her life. Isn’t that a shame? All the things we could have done, what we could have laughed over, the games we could have played. Don’t spend your time angry.

She lived with us from when I was little. She died a few weeks after your Father was born. He came in and she went out. I buried her myself. All I can say about her is she loved me and she was angry.

I have pictures of her as a bride. In a bathing suit. Outside with my Mother. After your Great-Great-Grandfather died, the pictures nearly stopped.

She had your Great-Grandmother and your Great Uncle Teddy. I saw Teddy a dozen times, maybe. He talked me into going to speech therapy when I was in second grade. I could not tell “F” from Th.” Imagine that. Sadie, I don’t think you will get to meet him.

Your Great-Grandmother Sheilah. Some of the pictures of your Great-Grandmother are stunning. I see photographs of her at age three or so. Age six or seven with her father. Playing, on a bike, at the park. Age ten with Uncle Al, in her teens at the beach, in a bathing suit. Pictures of her at her wedding.

She was born in a suburb of Boston. She was smart but not well educated. She went to secretarial school. She met my Father, your Great-Grandfather, in her 20s but I’m not sure when. Or where. I know my Father snuck her aboard ship when he was in the navy. My Father’s father had friends in high places and my Father got an honorable discharge. Not just for that.

She was active, rode her bike, went hiking, went prospecting for gold, diamonds, emeralds. We did lots of stuff when I was a kid. As much as we were able. We didn’t have much. I can remember sitting on the floor watching Star Trek when it first was on TV, walking to kindergarten, taking trips. She made dolls, painted clothing, refinished furniture, made wood puzzles, did arts and crafts. She played the piano and sang.

But she didn’t rest. Your Grandmother and I took a trip with her and your Great-Grandfather. She had pneumonia. She refused to rest. She ended up in the hospital on the trip. She took no time off. So she got sick. Then she got very sick. I wrote a lot about your Great-Grandmother. You can read some or all or none later on. Let’s say that she was pretty cool most of the time.

Anyway, she had me. And she had your Uncle Merrill. Great Uncle, I guess. He is three years, one month and four days younger than I am. We don’t hear from him much. You can ask me why, but I would not be able to give you a good answer. I just don’t have one. Sometimes, things are like that. It upset your Great-Grandmother though. She was hoping everyone would be closer.

Your Father didn’t know your Great-Grandmother well. He never met her when she was active. She died when he was barely eighteen and she was sick for that many years. He knew her only with a cane, then a walker, then a wheelchair. But your Aunt knew her as a more active person. One day, ask your Grandmother about her. They were good friends from even before your Grandmother and I were married.

Me. I was born in 1964, in Brookline, Massachusetts, outside Boston. I was kind of sick. Learned to walk really late. I was nearly three. I didn’t see well. I still don’t. My Mother taught me to read when I was four because the doctors and the schools said I never would. I taught myself most everything else. Except math. Your Grandmother taught me that. It took me a long time to figure out who I was and what I was doing. Or maybe just to figure out how things work and not be angry with the world. Or just to figure out what I really wanted.

I met your Grandmother when I was fifteen and she was twenty-one. She was a good friend of my Mother’s. I remember her asking my Mother if there was any way she, as in my Mother, could get rid of me. My Mother said yes. Your Grandmother and I got married when I was twenty. My Mother, your Great-Grandmother, told your Grandmother she should have been more specific.

Your Grandmother and I were best friends. Still are. Like Uncle Al and Aunt Jane. Best friends. I wish the same for you. It is the best wish I can wish for you. Really.

She and I made plans. It took a long time. We made them real. So whatever you want to do, I’ll back you. You can do it.

My Father’s side. I can’t tell you much. I wish I could. There are nearly no pictures. They don’t talk much. They tend to be not very close. I could tell you a few things though.

They are from Galacia. Remember, that middle letter means a lot. That is the area around Poland and Austria. The Gal in that word, both words, means the Gaels, the Celts settled there. A very Jewish area. Where they lived became Austria. Their name became Tritt, which means “step” and then they had to leave. That was in the early part of 1900s. The ones who stayed aren’t alive anymore. The ones who stayed died in the Holocaust. Sorry. I can’t make that sound good or pretty or nice. Your Aunt and I once went to the Holocaust Memorial in Miami Beach. You should do that someday. I can go with you. Your Great-Grandmother went to the one in Washington DC. When you go in, they give you the name of a victim to carry through with you. She was given a relative. What’s the chance of that? She was not ok for weeks. It happens, I guess. I have never been. I don’t know if I could.

Some of your Great-Grandfather Fred’s family lives in Israel now. His brother, Warren, your Great-Great Uncle, and his wife Merav, live in Tenafly, New Jersey. You have cousins in New York. And in Israel.

Let me tell you a little bit about your Great-Grandfather. He can be fun. In his own way, he is, has been, was, brilliant. He designed things. You and I, out and about, will probably see some of them. Some even in museums. Some in supermarkets. Labels, posters. He is a paradox. That means, in some ways, some of his qualities seem out of place when you look at some of his other qualities. I can say there is certainly no one else like him though.

He and your Great-Grandmother were activists. They were busy in lots of causes and, without a doubt, played their part in history.

Your Father and Aunt call your Great-Grandfather Pinkponk. Go ahead. Ask him why one day. Your Great-Grandmother they called Grandma. She really really loved them.

Let’s go back to your Grandmother Lee and her side of the family.

Your Great-Grandmother Shirley, she’s Bubbie. It’s Yiddish for Grandmother. Grandfather in Yiddish is Zeda. Great-Grandfather Lou didn’t want to be called that, or Grandfather, or anything like that. He wanted to be called Lou. He got it.

I have no idea, by the way, what you will call us. It doesn’t matter to me.

Your Grandmother and I grew up hearing Yiddish. But no one would teach us. The generation before, your Great-Grandmother, could understand it but not speak it. So it goes.

Back to your Grandmother, little one.

Remember Ellis Island and that Blue Star Line in 1922? Guess who else was on that? Your Grandmother’s family. Funny, huh? From Kiev to Buenos Aires to the US. Some of her family stayed in Buenos Aires. There are lots of Jewish people there. How? Well, remember The Netherlands, where they were accepted? They could start business and be part of culture. Many got involved in the Dutch East India Tea Company and they helped start business, on behalf of that country, in South America. You still have relatives there.

Your Grandmother’s Great-Grandmother went to Montreal. Then the family ended up in Philadelphia. Your Great-Great-Grandfather, your Grandmother’s mother’s father, a huge fellow who looked shockingly like Rasputin, was a deserter from the Tsar’s Army. Tsar Nicholas II. He left before the October Revolution and Lenin. He left during the Pogroms. The same things that sent my Grandmother and her Mother and sisters to the US. The Army carried these out with the help of Cossacks. There were several. This one was between 1903 and 1906. Who could blame him? I never met him.

Your Grandmother’s family on her mother’s side is really really nice. And fun too. You will meet lots of them, no doubt. Her sister Fran is wonderful. Great Aunt Fran. Really. You’re going to love her and she’ll love you. Your Grandmother has a brother too, Great Uncle Mitch. He’s in the Air Force. We don’t see him much. He’s a nice guy. He has three kids. They are your cousins. Jonah, Sydney and Danielle. Your Grandmother’s cousins are cool too. Fran and her kids, Harriet and her kids, Cheryl and Bob and their kids, Robin and her kids (and one of her kids has kids.), Jack and his kids. They all look a lot alike. At least the girls do. The Levin Girls, they call themselves.

Those cousins are the kids of your Great-Grandmother’s brother Ed, a wonderful fellow, and her sister Helen. Great-great uncle and great-great aunt. Helen was married to Uncle Shelly. He died not long after I met him. Some liked him, some didn’t. He was kind of unusual. But he was great to me and helped smooth me into the family. I miss him, really. He died pretty young. Here’s a hint how. Don’t smoke. Just don’t. Funny, but I don’t have any pictures of him. But I have pictures of all your cousins.

On her Father’s side, I have met Margo, your Grandmother’s cousin. She has two kids. She is nice and very kind and will love to meet you. Past that, I can’t tell you anything about your Great-Grandfather’s family. They don’t have much to do with each other, it seems.

You and I will look at all these pictures together. In this age of Internet and Facebook, there are a lot more pictures and, in some ways, it is easier to keep track. But the old pictures need to be saved, fixed, labeled and appreciated. We can do that together.

We can do lots of things together. Because you are going to be amazing.

Let me tell you. I liked your Mother from the first moment I met her. Really. I’d do anything for her. She’s wonderful. She is strong-willed and has a really good brain. And I am looking forward to getting to know her better as the years grow.

You are going to be proud of her. And she loves you already. You should see her walk around with you, showing you off. She is so looking forward to being your mommy. You two are going to be great together.

And your Daddy. He is as good and kind a person as anyone could want a person to be. And he is crazy smart! I’d be happy to know him even if he wasn’t my son. The world is lucky to have him.

Maybe he’s a little like I was in that he’s still figuring things out in some ways. But one thing he doesn’t have to figure out is that he loves you. He is so happy you are on the way that it’s obvious to everyone who sees him. He is doing everything he can to make a wonderful life for you. Everyone is. But he is working extra hard at it. You are going to be proud of him too.

And I can’t wait for you to meet your Aunt Sef. She is bright, and nice, and fun, and, and… Oh, Sef is Sef. She’s wonderful and amazing. You two will be friends, I am sure.

And your Grandmother. She is the best. I mean that. I hope you get some of her drive and determination and brains. Your Grandmother is incredible.

And, so, I know the best, most amazing ladies in the world. Your mom, Sef, your Grandmother and you, Miss Sadie. And that makes me the luckiest Grandfather this world has ever ever seen.

Welcome to the family.

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Posted by on February 7, 2011 in Culture, Family, History, Social

 

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Fifty Years Earlier

If I were born fifty years earlier
I would sit in a café in Paris,
Trade wit, find work writing copy
And critique, adventure in the arts and love,
Drink dark coffee and absinthe.

I would meet people in occluded rooms,
Crowded stations, and hush
Listen carefully, I will only say this once,
Pass small slips with single names,
Hide men in my attic,
Wonder about tomorrow.

If I were born fifty years earlier
I would say the proper brucha
Each morning, listen to my papa,
Go to yeshiva, study Talmud,
Marry whom I was told.

I would look toward the steppes
And one day see the horses,
My small town in smoke,
My footprints and cart tracks behind me,
Hope for a ticket of passage,
Wonder about tomorrow.

If I were born fifty years earlier
I would go to school
In the town with everyone else,
Shop in the markets,
Consider myself a citizen.

I would one day hear the crashing windows,
See the walls built, the paint flow,
The armbands and the army trucks,
Wonder what we had done,
Avoid the uniforms,
Wonder about tomorrow.

 
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Posted by on November 19, 2008 in Culture, History, Poetry

 

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This I Believe

About two weeks ago, riding in the car with my wife, we were listening to about the only station, locally, anyone is likely to find in our car – NPR. After the story about the upcoming political conventions the series “This I Believe” aired another in its weekly essays. I have written for the project, which can also be found in print, and while I cannot say I listen faithfully or find every one of the essays a treasure, a few stand out. I can remember hearing them and (this is the important part as a writer) they had an effect on me. As a writer, I could not ask for more praise or better praise. The sheer beauty of writing aside, if a work is forgotten, if a reader is not affected, then the sound and glory are nothing.

My favorite is by Penn Jillette and is called “There is no God.” As much a fan of Thoreau as I am, I cannot help but wish he had written this. It seems to be what he was trying to say through much of his time at Walden Pond. The essay is transcendentalism without the deism. It is a wonder of words and I am appreciative.

What we heard that afternoon in the car was by Sufiya Abdur-Rahman and is titled “Black is Beautiful.” It echoed so much of what I had written on the topic of the dark and lonely side of the headlong rush to assimilation and the expectation that we should all want to fit into a homogeneity so stark that we should have trouble telling each other apart. I am not a fan of Hyphenated-American-ism but what is wrong with have identities? I guess I am more a tossed salad American than a melting pot American.

I was moved to write Ms. Abdur-Rahman. It was rather hard to find contact information but I managed to do so by looking her up on MySpace. I sent a note to her from her MySpace profile.

Ms. Abdur-Rahman,.

I am writing to thank you for your essay on NPR.

As a second generation American, it has been my belief we need not be like everyone else to be an American. Indeed, it has been pointed out, and I feel truthfully, the differences among peoples are one of the things that have made this the amazing country it is. I applaud you essay for pointing out we can be, and should remain, who we are at our core.

I am Jewish. I was raised in the North and now live in the South. I have taken my children to see the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery to look upon the names of the heroes there and have pointed to the names of the six Jews next to the rest of those who fought for freedom. I have shown them the my parents took pictures of, when we moved to Miami, that said “No Niggers, Jews or Dogs Allowed.” I have explained that giving up our heritage means giving in. And we held on despite my daughter’s high school beatings for being a dirty Jew, the head start teachers command our son should learn to be a Christian so he can “pass” when he needs to, my own difficulties attaining academic posts because I did not attend the right kind of church.

We moved here during WWII. It was my feeling, after having lost two-thirds of my family, that it would be a slap in their faces to assimilate. My parents though, my grandparents, said “assimilate.” They spoke Yiddish. My parents understood it. I can do neither. Now my daughter, 23, and I are relearning what we lost. We have a long way to go.

Your essay brought the importance of that back to us. I applaud what you are doing and bless you for your struggle.

Adam

Adam Byrn Tritt

Did I get a response? You bet. It was quite a heartfelt note back and I shall not share it here. If you want a note from Sufiya, write her yourself.

 
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Posted by on September 5, 2008 in Culture, Family, History, philosophy, Social, Writing

 

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A Blatant, Unabashed Attempt to Convince Cool People to Move to Palm Bay, Florida

I recently spent a few days in Asheville, North Carolina. I had a chance to stay there on my way up from Florida to Ohio, stopping here and there to do an open mic, a booksigning or wax poetic to the gathered masses. I had the luxury of staying with friends who could show me all the better sights of a city I had been through many times but had never had a chance to explore. I was anxious, excited and nearly salivating over my good fortune and impending visit.

Each time through Asheville, we thought of moving. Every single time. Once, after a summer visit when the temperature never ventured above eighty degrees, after my wife remarked how downtown was like a small Philadelphia, I started looking for a teaching assignment there. I was told, over and over, the only way to get one was to know someone on the inside and then wait for a teacher to retire or, more likely considering how little teachers get paid in North Carolina, die. If I didn’t want to wait for a teacher to die on his own, I could actively create the vacancy. That has actually happened there. Either way, it didn’t seem a good career move.

Ashville is an oasis of liberal thought and action in a sea of social conservatism. Billy Graham was close by. Frequently one would find Falwell too. (Where he is now is a matter of debate.) One would also find the Earthhaven Ecovillage. Amid the many communes one cannot help but notice the many survivalist, neo-nationalist and right-wing religious orthodoxist groups. A friendly mix.

This time, there was something different. Coming into town from the south, about four in the afternoon, we sat on Interstate 26 nearly an hour to move fewer than ten miles. In Asheville? In Asheville.

Apparently I would have greater time to enjoy the pleasantly curving, gently sloping, tree-shaded streets as I would be spending quite a bit of time on them sitting still.

On a Friday evening, at the circular park central to downtown, across, on one side, from Malaprops, one of the most lauded independent booksellers in the US, and, on the other, a store devoted to Tibetan and Buddhist art and artifacts, I had the opportunity to attend a drum circle.

I had attended these in many towns but none were like this. At Fort Lauderdale’s South Beach one would find a dozen drummers, half a dozen belly dancers and, perhaps, nearly one hundred people. Not bad for a county population of 1.5 million. In Gainesville, Florida, college town and home to U of F, the community plaza might have two dozen drummers, a few dozen dancers and two hundred or so attendees. Not bad for a county population of 240 thousand. Of course, during the summer, you can hear a pin drop. I actually did this. Stood in the Gainesville Downtown Plaza and dropped a pin. Clank.

But Asheville is another story. The population of the county is slightly over 222 thousand. The downtown common, concave, deep, ringed by combination steps and seats, wide and inviting and green at the center, was full. Fitting another person in would have taken a pry bar or tackle and hoist.

I stopped counting the drummers at fifty. Dancers I stopped counting at one hundred. This did not begin to account for the number of people there sitting, talking, moving, swaying, singing and enjoying themselves in the summer night while, elsewhere downtown, a stage was set with constant live music while residents shopped at stalls along the plaza. People milled on the streets, at outdoor cafes, on benches. No part of downtown was not full of life.

Palm Bay, on the other hand. Palm Bay. We’ll discuss Palm Bay later.

Back to Asheville. Amid the hippies and hipsters one passes downtown, one must also deal with one of the largest per capita homeless populations in the United States. While I watched the drummers, while I walked downtown, I was accosted, and I use that word in its literal sense, multiple times by people cursing me because I did not give them money. Street musicians in New York and Philly and New Orleans play and if you toss them coins, well and good. In Asheville, if you don’t toss them a coin, expect the music to stop and the epithets to begin. That is the best you can hope for. You might find yourself with a new companion whom you have to pay to repel.

At charity events I often talk or read poetry to patrons until they pay me, pay the charity, to have me leave them alone. It works beautifully. But patrons expect to have their pockets lightened at charity events and I bath. This is very different than what I encountered in Asheville.

I asked about it. My Asheville friends told me one of the state institutions was nearby. When being mentally ill was, shall we say ‘decriminalised,’ the patrons of that state’s institutions were let out with no place to go. Asheville was where many ended up. Many. It seemed like all of them. With a mild climate and the blessing of proximity as well as tourism, Asheville seemed a natural choice even for those non compos mentis.

Perhaps this is not the cause of the relatively high crime in Asheville, but it can’t have helped. Asheville’s rate for violent and non-violent crime is quite a bit above the national average. And, still people move there in increasingly alarming numbers.

The Asheville Citizen-Times ran an editorial cartoon that depicted a company specializing in tours of Asheville dedicated to showing tourists all the places tourists ought not see if one hopes for repeat business and word-of-mouth advertising. It starts off on Merriman Street. I have walked alone in Liberty City, I’ve worked in Overtown and lived in the inner city of Detroit but I won’t walk alone on Merriman. I’m nuts but not quite that nuts.

The message is plain: The tour is to convince us Asheville is terrible. Horrible. Contemptible at nearly every level. “You don’t want to move here. Move someplace else. Someplace nice. Really. We truly care about you and your happiness so move to Florida instead.”

So, if you were planning a move to Asheville, if you were in contemplation of a relocation, here is an idea: move to Palm Bay instead.

Don’t think South Florida. The population here is remarkably different, diverse, from all around the world, but English speaking, able and willing to work together to make new projects happen, happen now, happen smoothly and still preserve the natural glory that is the place we live. The environment for creativity is accepting and open.

The environment as a whole is much different than South Florida as well. Not like any other part of Florida, the temperature never gets too high as the ocean air travels over the Indian River and brings a constant pleasant breeze. Nearly never into the forties in the winter nights, barely out of the eighties in the height of summer days and always cooling at with the evening, you will find the desire to sit outside watching the manatees and dolphins a real distraction. But you can handle it, right?

Of course there is one other distraction that is an accepted part of life here. Once every other month or so, nearly the entire population gathers outside, sometimes during the day, sometimes at night, to watch the bright exclamation point of fire leap into the sky as NASA launches a shuttle or satellite. Everybody looks up and the whole world seems to pause for a while. Work stops and everyone understands.

What else do you get? Homes. Your pick, as a matter of fact. So many are standing empty, built just before and during the spike in purchases and high real estate prices that you can have your pick and nearly name your price. A new one? No problem. Land? Sure. Condo? You got it. By the ocean? Absolutely. On the river? Of course. Commune? We have ’em. Want to start a new one? Go for it.

Looking to start a farm? You have people ready and willing to buy the produce of your labour. Make it organic and you’ll never have to sit behind a desk again unless that’s where you are comfy counting cash.

You see, we need cool people. We have drummers, dancers, artists and writers but we need more. We need that growth in the arts and creative elements of the population that will make creativity and a colorful life not only acceptable but an expected, welcomed part of the everyday here in Brevard County. And You can help make that happen.

Sure, we have drumming. We even meet downtown to drum and dance but the park is small, semi-circular at the point of a flatiron where two streets converge to form a ‘Y’ but there is little room. The drummers and dancers spill onto the street. Of course, this is in downtown Melbourne, just on the outside fringe of Palm Bay.

With more people like you, more people who would have moved to Asheville before discovering the horrible truth of it, we could move the drumming slightly south, to Palm Bay, to the beach, to one of the many river parks, to where drumming would not mean pausing to dodge a Dodge.

We have a downtown area. Of course, it used to have more buildings in it before four hurricanes in one year took many of them to Mexico. Now, the rents are low and the city is not only asking for people to bring in creative business, it is go so far as helping foot the bill with loans, incubator projects, assistance with equipment, business plans and advertising. The City of Palm Bay wants you and is willing to lend you the cash to set up shop.

Music is everywhere here. Jazz, Bluegrass and Rock fill the parks on weekends with bands and jams hosted by clubs, colleges and the city of Palm Bay. Renaissance and medieval music ensembles, theatre guilds (even the world-renown F.I.T., an engineering school, has a theatre guild) and writers’ clubs mix and match for a vibrant community of word and sound. We might be the only people to have that. Where else can you go to a coffeehouse and find the first violinist for the local symphony and the president of the ACLU in one New-world Beat Tribal-Fusion band? World’s fastest banjoist? Yes sir. How about Punk Eco-Ska? We got that, too. Here. Palm Bay.

And as for communities of faith, those are many and varied as well. Sure, there are churches of differing types and sizes from Apostolic to Zion, but there is also Unity, United and Universal. Temples? Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, sumptuous synagogues to homey chabads. We have mosques and ashrams. UU? You bet. (And the Unitarian Universalist Minister Ann Fuller kicks ass!)

Buddhism? Looking for Zen, Shin, Forth Wave, Engaged? Sure. We have a Thai temple and monastery open full time to the community complete with classes, meditation hall and monthly festivals. Asatru and Alexandrian? It’s here. Looking for Bacchus in Brevard? He’s here too. Wicca? We got it. North European, East Asian, West African and South American. You’ll find it in Palm Bay. If it exists, it is here. If it doesn’t exist, it might be here anyway.

Recreation? If you are into Kayaking, boating, cycling or walking, you have it day or night, year in and year out. You can’t drive down any of the main streets on any morning or afternoon without seeing volleyball, soccer or kickball. Into watching but not getting your hands dirty? We have soccer and baseball teams. Spend an evening watching the roller derby as the derby girls of the Harbor City Nautigals beat the crap out of the Bellevue Betties or the Space Coast Slashers.

If you are into classes, the community centers have them in spades ranging from acrobatics to Zumba. Martial arts are all over and include tai chi, chi kung, kung fu, Japanese sword, archery and Brazilian Capoaeira. We have kick boxing and Jiu Jitsu. I have not seen Krav Maga and Hisardut, but, really, it’s only a matter of time.

If you are into skateboarding, you found a great place. With plenty of outdoor skateparks and new indoor parks as well, skating is big and, if you are into streetsurfing, you’ll find the best in equipment and shops available all around.

Into the salty sea? If you are into the ocean in any way – surfing, skimming or wakeboarding – you haven’t just found a great place, you found THE place. The area Between Cocoa Beach and Sabeastian Inlet, of which Palm Bay is smack in the center, is year-round Surf-Heaven. There is a reason Ron Jons is in Cocoa Beach, after all, and Sebastian Inlet is home to several national surfing events every year and is well known to have the best surfing on the east coast.

Walk the beach any early morning and see people surf-fishing or running. Walk it in the evening in the summer and you may spot sea turtles coming up to nest or heading back out to the sea in the predawn.

Enjoy being a political thorn in the establishment’s side? There is an active growing progressive movement all though our county. One can be a part of the Space Coast Progressive Alliance, Patriots for Peace, Vets for Peace or any of the many groups which, amazingly, actually work in concert toward well-defined goals. When is the last time you saw that?

What don’t we have? A bus tour to take you to the slums. We have a slum. It’s nicer than most of the places I have lived, but, by comparison, it is a slum. I drive through it in two minutes. I walk through it in ten.

Why no bus tour? Who needs it? Asheville does. Horrible place. Terrible. Don’t go there.

Come here. If you are a lefty, liberal, centrist and/or an eco-nut. If you are a tree-hugging dirt-worshiper. If you would rather drum than eat, garden than shop, walk than drive, dance than fight, sing than shout, we want you. If you’d rather wear tie dye than a silk tie, we want you. If you’d rather eat tabouli than a Big Mac and have acupuncture than surgery, massage than drugs, we want you. The City of Palm Bay wants you. The City of Palm Bay needs you. I know I do.

 
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Posted by on August 2, 2007 in Culture, Nature, Social, Travel

 

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Then and Now in Cocoa, Florida

I had been led to expect a storyteller, in the grand cracker tradition of tall-tales about the land of scrub and swamp. What I got wasn’t a storyteller, but a reminiscer. What I got, was Speedy.

Speedy has a bullet in his leg he got when he was five and his brother, on crutches, shooting mullet to fish for shark, shot a concrete dock instead and a bullet bounced and lodged near his femur. It’s still there. He was five and, for Speedy, that was a long time ago.

Long ago, when the bluebills were so think on the Indian River the ripples of the water were waves of a feathered carpet, so long ago, mullet jumping was not remarked upon by amazed youth and needlefish swarmed. So long ago, the pelicans needed only dip a bill and not dive into the muddy dredged depths. So long ago the Banana River could not be seen through the yellow hands of fruit. All there is now is the water, the name and the memory of Speedy.

Hurricanes did not come but the September Storms did. And why not? It was Florida and to be expected. Mosquito Beaters were hung by doors and used to beat away the buzzers before opening and used to beat away the mosquitoes that got in and plenty always did and a palm placed against a screen would create a living handprint of bloodthirst. And why not? It was Florida and to be expected.

Was it hot? Sure it was but we didn’t know any better, Speedy tells us. All that could be done was to breathe it in and breathe it out and Speedy never noticed. It was Florida and who knew any different?

And the WPA came in and brought jobs, and bridges and dredges. Pineapple plantations came and went along with Zora Neale Hurston and Stetson Kennedy and Jim Crow and The Folkways Project, Folklife Project, Florida Music Project, American Memories Project and Florida Writers Project and public works projects and change upon change.

And then came the war, WWII, and the subs sunk off the coast, torpedoes, blackouts, shipwrecks and who knew the war came so near?

Speedy tells us what you grow up with is what you think is right until someone shows you different. “Maybe cat isn’t spelled c-a-t but who knew” is what Speedy tells us about the civil rights movement and says desegregation was not a big deal and went pretty smoothly but then, says Speedy, he was one side – what it from the other he didn’t know. “Might have been rougher,” he ads, looking at the only black lady in the room.

He was a reminiscer.

 
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Posted by on July 12, 2006 in Culture, History, Travel

 

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