Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Sometimes the parts just belong to a particular race

A few years ago my daughter was at a summer theater camp where they staged a production of "Once on this Island Jr."

The show is set on an unnamed island (Haiti) in the Caribbean (seriously, it's Haiti). The show is about the class divisions (in Haiti) and depicts a contest among the gods (all named after and patterned on the loa) that plays out as a love story between a peasant girl and the son of a boujwa family.

Seriously, the show couldn't be more obviously about Haiti if it tried. The social structure is Haitian,the names are all Haitian, and the snippets of language sprinkled through the show are Kreyol. The original Broadway cast even used Haitian accents. These are parts that are all black, except for the boujwa young man, who probably is mulatto, what we in America would call biracial.

Almost everyone at the camp was white. A few kids were Hispanic. One or two were biracial.

White kids playing Haitians. White kids playing the loa.

I didn't say anything at the time, or at least not too much, but this really bothered me. Being black is essential to the nature of these parts and the country where it's set. This felt like an act of erasure, of whitewashing. Not intentional, just thoughtless, insensitive, careless and dumb. No excuse.

I love to shake up the casting in shows with an eye toward racial inclusivity, but I feel like if you're going to do "Once on this Island," you'd better have either a solidly black cast, or a backup show planned.

Anything else is just rude.

Copyright © 2018 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Let's keep America exceptional

I want to take a moment to share why I'm proud to be an American.

A lot of other countries have made a point of priding themselves on their purity. They have draconian restrictions on who can be a citizen, like Japan. Countries like Iceland actually restrict the names you can give your children to a list of preapproved ethnic names. France even has an official body charged with maintaining the purity of the French language and keeping out foreign elements.

In America, it's a point of pride how diverse we are. Our national motto is "E pluribus unum," Latin for "Out of many, one." We talk about our country as a great American melting pot, and we boast about how many nations our ancestors came from.

We talk about American exceptionalism, and the truth is, this diversity is what makes us exceptional. In America I can attend college with classmates who born in Egypt, in Pakistan and India. It's that I can work next to a man from Ghana and that being no more unusual than the man on my other side being from Washington, D.C.

We're exceptional because we're a mix of religions. My daughters have played with classmates who were Hindu. I've celebrated Passover with Jewish friends and broken the fast during Ramadan at the local mosque. Our differences, joined together, are what makes us strong as a nation. It's like alloys: if you mix different metals together, you find that they're stronger together than they are alone.

America is a place where I can commiserate with a Muslim man because his daughters don't know who sings "Let It Be."

America is a place where I can walk down the main drag in my city and have my pick of Mexican,, Lebanese, Ethiopian, Italian, Chinese and Greek dinners, or just grab a burger and some fries.

America is a place where I can connect with people from all over the world in their native languages, and then join them in watching fireworks on the Fourth of July.

America is what President Reagan called a brightly shining city on a hill, a place that serves as a beacon of hope to the rest of the world. It's in the fabric of our country to welcome refugees and immigrants.

This isn't a new or progressive view of America. This is what we have always aspired to be. From the beginning we've been a place of many faiths. The story of Christianity in the United States goes back to our very beginnings. So does the story of Judaism. So does the story of Islam

Peter Salem, for instance, fought for our independence at Bunker Hill. Others Muslims who joined the Revolutionary cause include Yusuf Ben Ali, who fought in South Carolina; Bampett Muhamed in Virginia, and Francis and Joseph Saba.

Beware of those who would tell you that America is best served by turning away immigrants from another country or a particular religion, or who try to portray them as a threat to our country. Such people are lying about who we are, and they're trying to take America not back to its roots but in a very new and illiberal direction, one that betrays our values and all that makes us proud of this great land.

American is an exceptional place in this world. Let's keep it that way.

Copyright © 2018 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, June 18, 2018

the monster at the university

We live by a Rutgers campus with a large open space that slopes down into an artificial pond that serves as a detention basin for stormwater run-off.

Artificial or not, it's a scenic pond. Passion Puddle, as it's known to the university community, is home to a number of carp, but also plays host to a flock of ducks, and provides water to a number of willows and other trees. A grated pipe lets the water pass under Lipman Drive, which runs in a loop around this open space, and down into a ravine before it tumbles into the Raritan River. I walk the dog past it almost every night during the summer, when the breeze carries away the heat of the day, and the water sparkles as it falls from the fountain and back to the surface of the pond.

Passion Puddle is a prominent feature of the local topography, so much that my girls have all asked at different points when they were young to go for walks there, to feed the ducks, or just to sit and watch them swim. Once we even saw a line of ducklings following their mother as she swam in the pond one June.

Naturally it's figured in the girls' imagination as well. When she was little our oldest daughter, fresh from watching "The Little Mermaid," talked about the time she and her mother had become mermaids and swam around there. Years later, after seeing demonstrations of a submersible craft there one Ag Field Day, she made up stories to entertain her youngest sister about the little people who live in the submarine in the pond.

It was inevitable that Youngest became fascinated with Passion Puddle as well, and called on me to fill in the gaps. I don't have much of an imagination, so I latched onto her older sister's notions of a mermaid, and told her that Passion Puddle is home to a mermaid named Bathilda who is from out in the ocean somewhere but lives in the pond while she takes classes at Rutgers.

Thankfully Youngest didn't ask what Bathilda is studying, but she did ask how the mermaid keeps in touch with her family. Turtle mail, I explained: A turtle picks up Bathilda's mail and takes it down the ravine to the river, and then out to sea, before returning with letters and packages from home.

Like I said, not very imaginative, but it was good enough for her, and when she saw a turtle a few day later, that was all the confirmation she needed. Months later, she was still spinning her own tales about Bathilda.

A boy drowned in Passion Puddle about 10 years ago when he went swimming there to escape the June heat and got his feet stuck in the mud. Mindful of this, I told her that it's never a good idea to visit the mermaid in the pond, and if she ever got the urge to drop in on Bathilda or if Bathilda asked her to, she should ignore it. Mermaids are like Jenny Greenteeth: Avoid them, they are not your friends.

It was a few nights ago that I was taking the dog around Lipman Drive before turning in for the night. I haven't been sleeping well lately, for whatever reason, and I was exhausted. There was a nice breeze, though, and although the days hadn't become especially warm yet, there was something soothing about the feeling of the breeze and the calm susurrus of the leaves almost had a lyrical quality to it. It was a peaceful night, the moon's reflection was sailing across the pond, and the water from the fountain glittered like a thousand tiny jewels as it fell.

It was a perfect night to walk out onto the green, take a seat on one of the benches by the pond and enjoy the cool air for a while.

You know how some spring nights feel almost too beautiful for this world? This was one of them. There was nobody else around, just the insects in the trees making their music, and before long it seemed as though the night was singing to me, calling me forward, and telling me to sleep, to relax and let all my worries go.

It was my dog that ruined the moment.

One moment, everything was peaceful and at rest, and the next thing I knew, Loki was growling and snarling like a dog possessed. He pulled so hard that his leash slipped from my hand, and he lunged toward the water with a fury I have never seen before, and hope I never do again. At home and with the girls, he is as gentle as can be, but in that moment he was all teeth and snarls as he rushed at and wrestled with I don't know what.

And then the moment passed. Something I could't quite see slipped into the water and disappeared, and Loki returned to my side. He rubbed his head against my hip, and I scratched his ears. There were tears in my eyes as though I had just lost something beautiful, but at the same time I felt an indescribable debt of gratitude to him that I couldn't explain.

We finished our walk and went home. Every night as we go past Passion Puddle, a part of me tells me to linger a little while and treasure the sight, but if I try, Loki blocks my way, and pulls his way down the street.

Friday, June 08, 2018

Room for One More

It was 3 a.m. Friday and Maggie was wide awake.

​Maggie is a thirtysomething single mother with three children, a mortgage, and a job with a salary that plateaued even as its responsibilities and the cost of living have continued to mount. It's enough to wake anyone at three in the morning, even without the feeling that they''re paying too much for their phone plan.

After fifteen minutes of tossing and turning that failed to get her back to sleep, Maggie was getting up to turn on the light and find something light to read when she heard the trill of a robin. The song was coming through the window, which to her surprise she saw had been left open.

The light of the full moon fell on the street below. The muted shadows of trees lay across sidewalks and yards, and every neighbor's house was pale and bleached. And coming down the street was a solitary vehicle, an old horse-drawn hearse with a coffin in the back. Its rail-thin driver sat alone on the bench, disinterestedly holding the reins in one hand while he used the other to hold his cell phone.

He looked up at Maggie, and in that light she saw a sallow face with sunken eyes. "Does your cell carrier give you the cell coverage you deserve? Verizon has fewer dropped calls than any other carrier, and their already affordable rates come with a discount for military personnel," he said. He gestured to the back of the hearse, and Maggie saw that the coffin was empty. "There's room for one more."

She woke with a start, gasping for breath. On the night table her alarm clock showed the time "3:04" in glowing green numbers. Outside it was still dark, and the birds of the morning were still quiet. It would take two more hours until she fell asleep.

Friday morning was no better. This time she found herself getting off the elevator in the bottom floor of the hospital. The old analog clock in the hallway showed 3 o'clock, and as she walked through the empty hallway, the only sound she heard was the soft pad of her own feet upon the tiled floor.

There was a soft trill, like birdsong, that came through an open door. As her heart began to pound in her chest, Maggie found herself drawn inexorably forward, through the door and into the room.

It was the morgue. Bodies lay on all the tables, covered in sheets, and latched doors covered the steel sarcophagi where the other members of this silent town lay in state. A single table was vacant and by it stood an orderly with his cell phone in his hands.

"With Verizon's unlimited plan, you get unlimited texting and unlimited minutes to the U.S., Canada and Mexico," he said. "Plus you can stream video with quality as good as on a DVD, all for the low, low cost of just $40 a month per line." He pocketed the phone and placed his hands on the empty morgue table. "Sign up today, Maggie. There's room for one more."

Maggie screamed, and woke up in her own room. It was 3:04, and the room was shrouded in darkness. Moonlight came through the window and fell on the stuffed monkey her daughter had left there that evening before bedtime, its hands clutching metal cymbals and its face twisted by the shadows into a grotesque, mocking sneer.

There's room for one more, it seemed to say. Come on in, there's room for one more.

She stayed awake the entire night, hugging her legs as she waited for the dawn, feeling ashamed at being frightened by a dream but unable to shake the nameless dread that was creeping over her.

Things came to a head that Sunday in church. After a sermon on being nice to one another and smiling more at people, Maggie was talking with her friend Jon, as he and some of the others lingered in the parking lot, and explaining how she was trying to make ends meet by cutting needless expenses.

"Well, what's your cell plan?" he asked. "See, I'm on the Verizon Beyond Unlimited Plan. That gets me premium unlimited data, and unlimited cell minutes throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico, plus texting. Plus, when we stream video, it's high-density, and it can act as an unlimited mobile hotspot. It's only $50 a month,and whole we can have up to four lines, so far we're only using three. So there's room for one more if you want to join us."

As Maggie turned pale, his phone rang, with a ringtone that sounded like a bird bursting forth into joyous song. He answered it, then looked over at her. "Maggie, a bunch of us are going to Manticora's for lunch. We can give you a ride if you want. There's room for one more in our car."

Maggie screamed and ran away, leaving Jon and his family utterly confused in the parking lot.

That afternoon, the entire church except Maggie died at 3:04 p.m. due to a gas leak at Manticora's. At the table with Jon and his family was one empty seat, the only one in the entire restaurant.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Taking a road trip with Papa

When you're college age and don't have wheels but want to get around, pretty much the only way to do it is to stick out your thumb and catch a ride.

​I had a friend in college named Brad who used to go all over the Northeast that way during breaks, despite the risk. Brad was from California, so when spring and fall break rolled around, he'd hitch a ride to see friends going to school in Cambridge or upstate New York, or once even in Toronto.

The trip that put a stop to it was the trip he took to Baltimore his junior year. Funny part is, I don't think he even knew anyone there. He just wanted to go see it because he could. Even when he didn't have friends he was going to visit, Brad had an uncanny knack for meeting people and finding places to stay on the cheap, that would have made the rest of us anxious.

He left campus around four o'clock with his backpack in tow, and walked along William Penn Highway and other roads that kept parallel with Route 22 until he finally got a lift that was headed his way, about an hour or two later. The ride picked up the interchange before 78, and took him down I-476, past Swarthmore, before dropping him off at Ridley Park, Pa.

Brad hadn't been able to get a ride on Route 22 until around six o'clock, he said; and by the time they dropped him off at Ridley Park it was easily 8:30. He thought about getting a room somewhere, but that's not a cheap option, and usually if you find a truck stop, you can find someone who's willing to give you a ride just so they have someone to talk to as they drive through the night and into the early morning.

The truck stop was open, but there weren't many people in it, and none of the drivers was interested in giving a lift to him. Baltimore was too close, and a stop there just wasn't in the cards.

Brad was starting to wonder if he was going to be stuck in Ridley park overnight, when he noticed someone watching him.

He cut a colorful figure. He was short, dressed in black tails and wearing a high hat like he was going to a formal ball. There was the core of an apple he had been eating on his table, and he sat there puffing a cigar. When he noticed Brad looking, he grinned widely, raised his right hand and crooked his finger at Brad to call him over.

"Looking for a ride to Baltimore?" he asked, as he shuffled a deck of cards on the table in front of him. "I can give you a ride."

Brad told us that the man seemed little off to him, the way people sometimes do, but he also seemed friendly and Brad hated the idea of being stranded overnight or having to use a large chunk of his money on a hotel, so he agreed.

"Excellent!" the driver said. "Want to play a game of cads before we go?" He spread out the deck across the table. The cards were vulgar and pornographic. Brad made a face and the man full-out laughed at him. "Frightened by a woman's boobies?" he said, and laughed again. That was the least graphic part of the cards.

Brad was having second thoughts, but the driver grabbed his hand and practically dragged him out of the truck stop and toward the parking lot where his car was parked. It was a sedan as black as the man's coat tails, with tinted windows. He opened the trunk and threw Brad's pack in before opening the front door and shoving Brad in just as unceremoniously.

The seats of the car were covered with leather, and every surface on the inside of the car was spotless, but the air was smoky and it smelled like used bedsheets. Brad was starting to second-guess his decision to take this ride when the driver got in the car and gave his top hat to Brad, to hold in his lap; and then they were gone.

"Papa, who's with you in the front seat?" came a voice from the back seat, and Brad suddenly realized that there were two other passengers in the car. A pair of women were lounging in the back seat, either drunk or high, in their late 20s.

"He's a friend of mine I am taking to Baltimore," the driver said, and the car tore down the road so fast that Brad instinctively grabbed the arm of the door for support and pushed his right foot against the floor of the car in front of him. The driver noticed and laughed again, his bright white teeth showing in the darkness. "There's no brake over there," he said. "Don't worry, you'll be there in no time!"

Worrying was something Brad couldn't help but do. The road in front of him held his eyes captive, and he stared unblinking and open-mouthed as they would zip up to the rear of one car after another and then weave into the other lane to pass them at a dizzying speed. He stole a glance at the speedometer and saw that it was already past 80.

"Can you — can you slow down?" he finally managed.

"What's that?" his driver asked, and he pressed the accelerator further to the floor. "I couldn't hear you."

There was a flash of red and blue behind them, and the driver laughed again. Brad was beginning to hate that sound.

"Hey look, my friend," the driver said, "boss police wants to chase me. Do you think he can catch me?" And impossibly, the car sped up again, and the police car disappeared behind them.

The driver was laughing again. If a demon in hell laughed at the souls in its clutches, it would laugh like that. The laughter, the heady smell, and the dizzying speed were a terrible concoction, and Brad felt himself getting sick.

The driver noticed.

"Hey girls," he said. "Papa's little friend isn't feeling well. Think you can make him feel better?"

Hands reached out from behind the car seat and started to touch Brad on the arms, on his chest and the sides of his head, while soft voices whispered to him to relax. At one point, he told us, somebody actually passed him a cup with a fruity drink in it that he later realized was rum. He wondered if it was drugged, because at some point he became convinced that he was dead. He had died back at the truck stop, and the rider was taking him into the afterlife. The driver had taken Brad out of his body, put him in a small clay jar and was lowering the jar into a dark pool of water that had gathered in a crypt from the rains that had fallen on the cemetery.

"Just stay here for a year, my friend, and we'll be back," he said. His voice echoed off the walls of the stone mausoleum where he had tossed Brad's bones with a jumble of others. There was a heavy grating noise as the lid was being closed, and then Brad had enough.

"For the love of Christ!" he shouted. "This isn't funny. Stop it. Let me out!"

The driver turned and glared at him, smiles all gone. He pulled over to the side of the interstate, opened the back of the car to get Brad's pack, and threw him out right there. They were on I-95, with signs for the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine coming up.

As Brad watched, the driver got back into his car, pulled back out onto the road and drove off. In a moment, the car had vanished.

The highway patrol found him sitting there on the side of the highway about 20 minutes later, out of his mind and violently ill, still holding the top hat. They took him to the University of Maryland Medical Center, where they treated him for shock, although toxicology couldn't find anything wrong with him.

There was one doctor, he said, who took an interest in his story, a doctor whose accent made it sound like she might be from Martinique or one of the other islands in the Caribbean. She had him tell the story again and again, and after he had told it to her to her satisfaction, she crossed herself and told him he had been lucky.

When they discharged him on Sunday, this doctor was supposed to be the one to sign him out, but then she saw the top hat among his personal things, and left the room immediately. She wouldn't come back in, and somebody else had to sign him out instead.

To the best of my knowledge, Brad never hitchhiked again.

Copyright © 2018 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

The Guardian of Meadowbrook Road

Rita was about 8 years old when her mother and she moved into the old Muller house on Meadowbrook Road.

When Rita started attending third grade in Level Green Elementary School that fall, she had no difficulty getting friends to come visit. The area was still moving from a farming community to a suburb, and with subdivisions still largely unheard-of in Level Green, the properties along Meadowbrook Road were some of the biggest in the area. Front yards alone often were a half-acre, while the back yards rolled down forever into a ravine that ran all the way into Murrysville. Adults valued the space for the greenery and the privacy. For kids, especially those with smaller back yards, a place like Rita's was an adventure waiting to explore.

It was one of those explorations that Rita and one of her first classmates found a block of cement in the ground in the back yard with the name "Wachter" engraved in faded letters. They also found a pussywillow, an old shed with a roof that was about to cave in, and the area where the Mullers had burnt their leaves in the fall; but it was the cement block that grabbed their attention the most and it was the cement block that they asked about at dinner that night.

"The Mullers used to have a dog," her mother said. "He told me that when it died about ten years ago they buried it out back so they could still feel he was around. I think that was its name."

As you'd expect, the next few days at school all Rita would talk about was her new dog. It was black with brown legs, but it looked like silver in the moonlight. It was as big as she was; no, it was ten times bigger. It was vicious like a wolf, but it was as gentle as a puppy with her. Eventually word got around Mrs. Cromer's class that Rita was making it up, that all she had was somebody else's dead dog, and the boys especially started teasing her. She stopped talking about it, but she would still draw doodles in art class and in the margins of her homework assignments, of herself with a giant dog. The teasing had pretty much played itself out by this time, and everyone just let her enjoy her pretend dog.

It wasn't like there weren't other problems to worry about, after all. There was a rash of thefts along Colbaugh Drive that October. At first it was just cars that had been left unlocked and along the road, but by early November someone was breaking the locks and even a few windows and rooting through people's gloveboxes, looking for wallets or other valuables.

Then it became home burglaries.

Level Green was a quiet community with some roots that go back to before the Revolution. Local folklore says that a young George Washington chased fleeing Indians through the Shades of Death following the Battle of Bushy Run during the French and Indian War, and that was probably the last time anything really exciting had happened in the community. There weren't many active farms left, but there was a lot of open space and the people who lived there generally led quiet lives that involved living in Level Green and driving 40 minutes or so to work in places like McKeesport and West Mifflin, or maybe 20 minutes to Monroeville and Murrysville if they were lucky. The burglaries got attention the way few things could, and they were all people were talking about at church and at school. A family came home from a day trip and found their valuables gone. One woman called the police to report someone trying to break into her house while her husband was away, and while the police didn't find a suspect, they did find a badly damaged back door where he had tried to break in. So by early December when the elementary school students were learning the words to Christmas songs like "Too Fat for the Chimney" and wondering if it would snow for Christmas, their parents were making sure that no child was going home to an empty house. Latchkey kids like Rita would go home with a friend and then their parents either would pick them up, or the friend's parent would drive them home personally before dinner after getting a call to verify the parent was home.

It was five o'clock on a Wednesday in early December when Rita caught a ride home to Meadowbrook Road with her friend's mother. It was already pitch-black outside, but the porch lights were on and so were the lights in the living room, so when Mrs. Kowalczyk dropped Rita off, she waited in the driveway until Rita walked to the door, unlocked it and waved goodbye before she drove off.

From what the police later were able to work out, the burglar already was in the house when Rita's mother arrived. She had come through the front door and called Mrs. Kowalczyk before she noticed anything amiss, and by the time Rita came in the door 10 minutes later, the burglar already had overpowered her and left her tied up in the basement while he ransacked the rest of the house.

This is where the police are less clear what happened. That the burglar tried to catch Rita is obvious. Terrified by the sight of a strange man in her house, she screamed and ran up the stairs to her bedroom, where she had always felt safest. She locked the door and ran to the corner, where she tried to hide behind a large wooden toy chest, only for the door to break as the burglar kicked it open.

One of the police investigators credits Rita with pushing the burglar through the window and then using the phone in her mother's bedroom to call 9-1-1. The burglar, who suffered several broken bones in the fall, claimed that the family's vicious dog, which he described as an 80-pound German shepherd, had come "out of nowhere" and attacked him once he broke into Rita's room. According to him, it bit him on the arm and was going for his throat when its attack pushed him through the window. His arm was bleeding, and badly, but medical personnel said it was cut by the broken window. And of coure, as both Rita and her mother told police, there was no family dog. (They later remedied that, with a large but very friendly St. Bernard named Clifford, whose bark was loud enough to frighten anyone.)

Rita was a celebrity at school once she came back that Friday. She didn't want to talk about it, and since the teachers insisted that no one push her to talk about unless she wanted to, her classmates more or less respected that silence.

All she did say is, "He would never let anyone hurt me."

Copyright © 2018 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, June 01, 2018

President Trump, the Religious Right and my Jesus

My Jesus cares about justice. There is no evidence that Trump or his supporters do.

My Jesus healed the sick. Trump has made cuts to healthcare, while his supporters approved.

My Jesus welcomes refugees. Trump turns them away while his supporters nod their approval.

My Jesus said "Blessed are the poor" and "Woe to the rich," and warned about the dangers of wealth. Trump is a billionaire who passed tax cuts for the wealthy, cut social aid to the poor while his supporters applauded.

My Jesus welcomes people of every tribe, nation and language. Trump wants to build a wall, block entire countries and set strict quotas on immigration. His supporters are all on board with this.

My Jesus warned against people who harm children. Trump's administration tears them from their mothers at the border, loses track of them, and defunds groups that provide prenatal care. From his supporters on the Religious Right? Crickets.

The first-century followers of my Jesus understood something about the holiness of sexual commitment in marriage. Trump brags about grabbing married women "by the pussy" and covers up a string of affairs. The Religious Right "gives him a mulligan." Ralph Reed even says character doesn't matter.

My Jesus talked theology with a Samaritan and commended the faith of a pagan. Trump slanders Islam,and his Religious Right supporters cheer him on.

My Jesus warned us against men like Trump. The Religious Right tells us he's the dream president for Christians.

What's the matter here? Which god do you serve?

‘Cause I’ve got to say, for all the news you make about your faith, it doesn’t look much like my Jesus.

Copyright © 2018 by David Learn. Used with permission.