Kaya Part 2

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The dog and I had a rocking summer. I was looking down the barrel of a senior year of college and despite the cushy liberal arts ticket that I had to ride, I didn’t let myself off easy and there was a load of work to do, so I took that as entitlement to fuck and run, twist and shout, drink and wander. The dog was, more often than not, a passenger on my right forearm, nigh 9 pounds, boarding metro busses and secreted into greasy falafel joints, neon-bloody dive bars, friends’ cars and the occasional dance club without any trouble. Mostly the dog and I lolled the first half of days around my best friend’s apartment where the dog stalked the roommate’s cat, a pair of cartoons without a musical score.

 

But I left her at my pop’s house if I was bound for something that struck me as irresponsible for a tiny pup to attend. My younger brother often rolled in during the tiny hours and worked through the end of his ecstasy by cuddling the dog in the climbing penumbra of day, and my father could be counted on to care for her in the evenings. There is a reel of film that I can no longer locate but the content of which is seared onto my brain, given all that came next:

 

Our three-legged 14 year-old lab-pit bull mix, Sky, is not pleased with the puppy’s identification of her as mother figure. Sky, though, cannot step off the carpeted runner that stripes the kitchen and living room, as the wood floor dependably kicks one of her legs out from under her and sends her into an undignified sprawl. So my puppy belly slides across the wood floor, getting as close to the Sky’s grayed, snapping pit jaw as she dares, then flipping over onto her back to bare a bright pink belly to vehemence of her elder, who can’t quite bring herself to actually disembowel the baby. Sky snarls and snaps and stumbles, drool flying inches from the vulnerable flesh of my puppy’s center, but not once does she make contact. Eventually, when she tires, the puppy gets as near as she can, propping her jaw on her tiny paws, staring with endless adoration at her rejecting mother, punctuating the depth of her feeling with sharp yips here and there.

 

Nineteen months later, the fishbowl has spun again. My brother lives in Barcelona, studying at some American school and plenty more in the gothic alleyways full of fiesta. I live in North Carolina with a taciturn, sassy, gorgeous Persian woman and teach and study creative writing, and my father is preparing for his first trip back to the southern hemisphere since his plummet from the Costa Rican cliff five years prior. It is no big surprise when he calls to summon his sons home to put down Sky, which we do with no lack of ritual in our living room, breaking and rebuilding together around the void of her. It is a surprise that this ceremony is the last time we see my father, as he’s felled by an errant bubble in his blood—his broken arteries the last legacy of the earlier fall—his first night in the outskirts of Quito.

Kaya, Part 1

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The interstate was jammed with broken heroes, or at least that was the track that my father hummed along with as he maneuvered the Subaru up the onramp. Maneuver might be too generous, or too precise, because of his imprecision, which arose with the euphoric haze that the little pills kindled in him. I’d learned to white knuckle the armrest and speak loudly and suddenly—about anything that came to mind—when I suspected he might be dozing or spacing. I knew I shouldn’t let him drive and I knew that his ego wasn’t ready for the damage that announcement would cause. So I buckled up and gripped leather.

 

Mount Vernon sits 90 miles or so north of Seattle and there was occasion for me to wince through the outer bands of Seattle and then through the basket of Skagit Farmland. Dad was elated at this excursion, a real-deal father and son kind of outing that he could manage—since his nine story plunge from a cliff in Costa Rica, and the seven surgeries, the hardware screwed into his spine and ankles, he wasn’t going to be leading me on any hikes or to throw the football. But he could, he was sure, navigate us an hour and a half north to get me a golden retriever puppy before I returned to my last year of college.

 

In the backyard of the down-low breeders’ property, a gorgeous and frantic red-coated golden sprinted on a cable run, back and forth, back and forth, barking a metronome that was equal parts joyous and desperate. At the base of a crooked staircase, the two runts (two of eleven) tumbled—the boy was lazy and tubby and mellow; the girl was fierce and enervated, nipping her brother from five angles as he pawed at the cobalt blue sky with a tiny tongue poking sideways. I gathered up the female in my arms and she chomped at my ear and scrambled to escape with nails as sharp as her teeth and I pressed my nose into her fur and nodded at my cane-propped father, who fumbled three Benjamins out of his front pocket. The dog behaved much better for him—even snuggling into a brief snoring spell in his lap—as I drove us decisively and fast, back to the city as the sun clawed at the sky in death.

Carousel

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The light of the carousel is not kind. It’s the kind of light you’d expect in a dentist’s office, not searing down onto the fantastical hoop of painted ponies bobbing on brass poles and delighted, red-nosed toddlers. It seems that every carousel I’ve ever seen has one sleigh on it—a flat bench that might fit a small family, just in case someone not able or willing to scramble up the slick plastic side of a horse wanted aboard. I stand between two ponies, my palms on the lower backs of my son and his friend. We are directly behind the sleigh. After the first couple of revolutions, a few dozen squeals of joy from my kiddo and the dozens around us, I finally notice the woman on the sleigh. She’s wide, white-haired, somewhere amid a rocky seventy-something years. Her jacket is cheap flannel and a dusting of what might be flour rides her right shoulder. Her hair has segregated itself into greasy clumps. At her side are the rumpled, hard-held bags responsible for the ugly title that pops in my mind as flashbulbs pop around us: bag lady. She crosses one leg over the other and leans back, her slab of worn face aimed out into the night, over the heads of all the whooping, waving parents. No matter what scape the carousel presents her with—damp wall of a department store, squads of bike cops massing for an impending protest, the sixty-foot Evergreen the mall has garishly decorated, even Macy’s brilliant North Star—her expression never shifts, nor does her gaze. She takes what she’s presented with, every once in a while lifting a thick, ragged thumbnail to her teeth. She’s spent three dollars for this sleigh on this carousel. She’s spent three dollars to go around and around wrapped in cruel light with children’s laughter spilling around her. The thought that she represents the inverse of childhood, of joy feels ugly, but there it is. Maybe the carousel is a reminder to her of a long-lost child—her own, or herself. Maybe her cloudy eyes are seeing something after all. She’s a reminder, maybe, to us young parents to not just let ourselves and our children be carried round and round and round until all we are left with, like her, is memory.

Richard Sherman & Macklemore: Seattle Raises Race

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You can’t tell me otherwise—I’ve lived in and traveled through too many other sections of this nation: people think of Seattle as a “white” city.  And with good reason.  In 2010 the census put as at 69.5% whitey—though 33.7% people of color, however that works.  Secondarily people think of Seattle as Asian, also with good reason given our historical influx of Vietnamese, Japanese and Pacific Islanders and the robust and colorful “Chinatown” they brought with them.  But for white boys like me who grew up attending inner city schools in Seattle, it’s always been a little bit schizophrenic to consider our city “white” because our experience was anything but.  Even if the majority of Garfield High was white in 1995, for example, Garfield was considered a “black” school—in large part due to its location in the Central District, its fierce athletic and music departments, etc.   It was also known—and still is to some—as “the slave ship,” due to the AP and predominately white classrooms located on the top floor.  More to the point, inasmuch as hip-hop culture is identified with black culture (much more so when I was a kid) that was the dominant and “cool” culture that we all came up with.  By definition, being a white boy and being popular in the schools I attended presented challenges (I don’t mean to imply that it presented more challenges than being black in America).  So there was always something that bugged me about the impression of Seattle as a white city, awash in sonic waves of Nirvana, packed full of limp-wristed, pale people that inhabited dark coffee shops (where I sit right now typing).  I don’t think I was the only white boy to come out of that academic/social experience constantly managing the temptation to say, “not the Seattle I know” when people generalized or guessed at our culture in far-flung cities. 

 

Anyway, I say all of this just to frame the irony that Seattle, in the last ten days, has produced the two individuals and the two incidents that provide the most useful fuel for discussion of race—particularly racism against blacks—that I’ve seen in a long time: Richard Sherman’s interview after the Seahawks’ win against the 49ers and Macklemore’s commentary about walking off with all the Grammies last night.  More to the point, I’m proud—proud that these two famous Seattleites (ok, I know Richard Sherman’s from Compton) have led the way in pushing hard on the nuances of race and racism in their respective industries. 

 

Sherman’s inspired soliloquy after he outclassed the San Francisco offense as well as his eloquent press conference have been properly dissected in the media already, most impressively, I think, by Dave Zirin.  I love it: Sherman doesn’t waste any words: “thug” is the new way to use the N word.  And what better evidence of the broad blindness of American racism than the fact that this man who’s being called a “thug” is a Stanford grad and deeply invested in service to his community, in addition to, as he said in his moment of thrall, “the best” at what he does on the field.  The fact that a broad swath of America could watch Richard Sherman celebrate the win with panache and joy and see only an angry black “thug” underlines either how unfamiliar most of this country is with black culture or points to the fact that any “black” behavior is “thuggish.” 

 

Macklemore was polite at the Grammies last night and he failed to make any political statements under the limelight.  But just after he texted and tweeted and did all those things he does so well about how Kendrick Lamar had been “robbed.”  Implicit in this message is that Macklemore understands that his race had more than a little to do with the sweep of awards he made. When Macklemore released “white privilege” all those years ago, some people yawned, some people snickered, some people hated, some people nodded.  And I admit that I was suspicious about the transparency of what he was doing on that track—standing on white privilege to decry it seemed  ideologically tautological.  But then again, how else do you do it?  Make an indie-alt record?  Dude is a b-boy, by any measure.  At any rate, at least to my mind, Macklemore’s messages on social media last night mark his integrity and his awareness of the mindfuck of racism in the hip-hop industry more fully than any track he could write and sell about it. 

 

So it’s a validating if frigid and foggy January morning for me—to see that at least for the moment national conversations about race are emanating from Seattle, and they are not laced with the inoculating agents of political correctness or expediency.  Go Hawks; rock on, Ben (Macklemore).  Maybe at this rate Garfield High School won’t always be known as “the slave ship” in the neighborhood.  

OF CRANES & GULLS: SEATTLE INNARDS

 

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The Denny Way/Broad Street exit off of 99 during morning rush hour feeds vehicles into a gridlocked bottleneck Seattle-style.  You are not merely surrounded by construction cones and signs—blazes of orange—and a few lackadaisical flaggers always smoking for some reason. It’s a virtual dystopian clusterfuck panorama: the broadside of a half-gutted, half-built condo tower that can’t help but remind one of the Death Star; lanes doglegged into zags as if by some divine civic hammer to make room for the elbows of as-yet unlaid lanes; banana yellow construction cranes framed by narrow alleys, poised to drop in or lift out a dose of steel.  Pushing back against all of this novelty are old Seattle icons: the pink neon elephant spins as ever; the space needle lays down its hypodermic shadow; the monorail chugs glumly now below much instead of above most, a depressed septuagenarian caterpillar. 

            The men who stalk the off-ramp with cardboard signs for spare change are arguably both new and old Seattle.  They have sometimes vanished due to inaudible clicks of the social service economy or city policy.  They have often reappeared in larger numbers, more haggard than before.  Today the Asker clasped the cardboard plea to his parka with one hand, a bag full of corn chips with the other, pausing to cast handfuls skyward.  Desperate gulls wheeled and screeched against the winter sun like a tribe’s ritual appeal for good favor.  The man grinned and tossed, watching the faces of commuters for reaction, reading our impressions of his wild dance of charity, hoping maybe for the same from us but delighting regardless in the rain of corn chips and gull shit on hybrid hoods, the vapor of his breath in the splintered gold of the sunrays.  One old bird perched tranquilly on his shoulder, too dignified to beg.  Just waiting for the light to change, for the man to reverse course, for our wheels to turn, for the offering, lifted to his beak.