Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Remembering Memphis

It was 1968 and not enough people had been killed. James Meredith and Medgar Evers had been shot, but not enough cannon fodder in Vietnam or Iraq, nor Bobby Kennedy, nor many good people to come and suddenly be taken from us, not enough for us to realize how terrified we were of change, of the emptiness at the core of our selfhood. My brother hadn’t done a U-turn from being in The Resistance and burning his draft card to becoming a right wing Christian Conservative and saying, “Nothing in the 60s was worth spit.” For all the screaming idealistic rhetoric, we still had no idea how hollow authority was or how much anxiety and denial ran through the nation’s psyche. Recently married, I’d come to know the pangs of possession and bigotry inside myself, how hard it was to let go, especially of nothing. I had woke up enough to rail at the power structure but not enough to understand its insatiable appetite and infinite capacity for deceit, murder and crime. That would come later after we knew "THE REST of the story" on Vietnam, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Panama, the Economic Hit Men, the promotion of the Kurdish uprising, Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam, pedophilia and denial in the Catholic Church. O everybody knows, the fix is in, and you know how it goes, once you start defending a weak ego.

The Memphis Garbage Workers’ Strike was on, Martin Luther King had been shot, just as he had begun to speak out on Vietnam and discrimination in the North. His body lay there on the hotel balcony, legs sprawled out, knees bent, as if doing the limbo on the floor---he was in THAT much PAIN! I thought (“Help me!” he cried, just like I do even when I know there’s nobody there, nobody there at all).

Marriage was hell for me. I remember it as a lump of pain and anger I carried around in my chest for years, because I’d never had to accommodate another person in my life before. My communication skills worked with adolescent gang kids but not at home, where I was still the adolescent. How dare she be so different from me!? “What is this earth,” I wrote in my notebook on the plane, “that we live on it in all its seasons and humiliations?” I was a Street Club Worker for the New York City Youth Board, and my union offered to send a few of us to Memphis to march with the Garbage Workers. I used to sing (and do riffs on paper and comb to)

“If Beale Street could talk
If Beale Street could talk
Married men would have to
Take their beds and walk.”

But I never knew the Memphis of Memphis Slim and the other blues artists I listened to, could be so blue, so soft and moist in the morning, white people so defensive or overly apologetic or belligerent, blacks with that beaten look in their eyes…as if they also were in a bad marriage. “We were killing each other.” She told me later. But we thought it was love. And I guess it was, we just didn’t know much about love. The white people on the sidewalk weren’t screaming “Nigger Lover!” so much now that Martin was dead. They just stared at this aftermath and at us like we were some utterly alien funeral procession for some foreign dignitary. There was so much grief and poverty in their faces too, you would have thought, if you thought about it at all, there just wasn’t enough of anything to go around, and it was everybody’s shame.

I remember Memphis, today, 1/15/07, 39 years after the fact, as a central fact of my life, divorced and broken and patched up & bolted together like Frankenstein (ARRGGG!)in so many ways I never thought possible, betrayed by every possible authority, still struggling anonymously in a daily battle for survival. And I remember the signs saying, “I AM A MAN". I remember Martin, as the man who made more sense for me than Malcolm when I was walking in the 60 feet of pavement between two rival gangs in Brooklyn, and I remember the doctor who did the autopsy saying he had the heart of a 60 year old man, he was that worn down from the struggle. I hope there's nothing horribly wrong with that, because I AM a 60 year old man now and I too need to say I AM A MAN, but I’ve done relatively nothing, just carried my little sign to swell that throng, with nothing to say, just overwhelmed then as now by the endless pathos, what the other needs, little hands reaching for comfort, food, or just to be OK. And it can’t be OK. Did he, did we do all that just to die as the planet burns up in a cascade effect of combined feedback loops betrayed even by the authority of the scientific method, each study locked in its own narrow spectrum of data, all the estimates of ice melt at least a 100% too low, nobody watching the store?

Then as now, some used Jesus for power, some used Jesus for peace---and there can’t be any peace. We can’t repair the human heart that much--and some, like me, just want to say anything just to hear themselves talk. The hostess at the Chinese Restaurant tonight said suddenly, out of the blue,

“Are you a writer?”

“Sometimes I’m a writer,” I said amused, “most of the time I’m just a scribbler.”

But include this in the record, and never forget, the tacit blessings of trees and grass and flowers and dark, rich soil, that morning in 1968 in Memphis, and a black woman in a torn sweatshirt leaning against a doorway to one of those ramshackle houses forever weeping the silence of the ages no man has ever questioned without consequences.


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