All posts by markhfreeman

Passed and Present: Midnight in Havana

It is around midnight in Havana, and our room is only a block or so from the gay bar Las Vegas, which did not exist on our last visit here back in 2001. Another few blocks on is a corner—known for some reason as the Big Bang, which in Cuban sounds more like ‘pingpong’—that is gay cruising central, right where La Rampa (23rd St.) meets the Malecón. This sea wall is an evening living room for all of La Habana, the traditional locale for cheap dates, family outings, older couples and innumerable crews of teenaged kids.

But we are not out tonight, even though it is a Friday. Ken has been feeling sick with the same coughing thing I’m just getting over. We try turning on the telly. First there appears a printed quote from national forefather José Martí, whose rebel army fought alongside Teddy Roosevelt and died in battle to free his country from Spain only to have it fall into the hands of the North Americans, along with Puerto Rico and the Philippines in 1898. His quote had to do with Culture being the path to Freedom. Then the tv switched to an old version of Wuthering Heights already in progress. We watched as much of the tacky ‘90s costume drama as we could.

But it simply couldn’t hold a candle to the Cuban/Spanish film we saw today in Teatro Yara at the top of La Rampa, one of many hundreds of offerings in Havana’s New Latinamerican Film Festival, currently celebrating its 38th year. December is high tourism season, and there is an International Jazz Festival and a Pan-American Crafts Fair going on as well.

The film we saw was “Esteban,” a 2015 first feature for tv-based director Jonal Cosculluela, and it merits description. The nine-year-old moreno title character (a previously non-professional Reynauldo Guanche every bit as believable as the youngest actor in “Moonlight”) is the only child of a beleaguered but still radiant mother (the truly lovely Yuliet Cruz). On the street she illegally sells soaps, packaged noodles and “intimacias,” a euphemism for tampax. Esteban is solitary, and quietly sad—possibly he will be gay, definitely he is lost. Until one day his ears lead him to stop outside the apartment of an old, rather derelict piano teacher (the amazing Cuban master actor Manuel Porto). It turns out the child has a gift, but more importantly he has the strength and determination to overcome: this crusty teacher’s repeated rejections; an inability to pay for lessons; and his mother’s stubborn antagonism to her child’s fantastic desire. Unlike almost every other film released today in Cuba, it has neither sex nor violence nor X-rated language. And despite being as far from melodrama as can be, it was a three-hanky flick for me. I know I am just a sucker for films about sensitive kids and unlikely father figures.

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It helps that we now recognize every detail in the film. Among these are the short school uniforms, color-coded gold for primaria (elementary school), red in secundaria  and blue for colegio. Also familiar are examples of a dismal economy, the mother too exhausted to cook who gives her boy 10 pesos (40cents US, but a lot to someone who may make only the equivalent of $10 US per month) to buy a pizza on the corner, and the son who then goes without it, to save the money toward a first piano lesson. Then there are the newish yellow cabs, like SEATs from Spain and Russian Ladas, plus all the ‘40s and ‘50s American classic cars held together by baling wire and genius that are referred to as almendrones (due to their almond-like chubby rounded lines, at least prior to the ’57 Merc).  After only two weeks in Cuba none of this seems foreign.

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And all the music in the film is provided by four-time Grammy winner Chucho Valdés. The leader of the Cuban orquesta Irakere, he is probably one of only a handful of true piano masters in all the history of Jazz. Also in that class of five I would list Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Thelonius Monk, and for the last one either McCoy Tyner or my man Fats Waller, but friends of mine would argue for Bill Evans or Keith Jarrett. At any rate it was a real coup getting him to write and record the soundtrack.

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Proof of which we heard the night before, catching Valdés for the first time since Irakere overcame State Department difficulties to play in San Francisco about ten years ago. And he shone. It was the opening night of the Havana Jazz Plaza International Music Festival, and el maestro provided a compendium of Cuban jazz. He’d take a standard like “For All We Know (We May Never Meet Again)” jazz it slowly with feeling, then swing it to a cha-cha beat, or maybe it was a guaguanco. Then he towel-fanned himself in the Yoruba ritual manner while the clave beat-keeper of his cuarteto did a traditional call-out to the orisha deity Ogun, this time on his batá talking drums. Next, he introduced special guest Omara Portuando, of  worldwide fame via Ry Cooder’s Buena Vista Social Club album. After Celia Cruz she is Cuban vocal royalty. Valdés tastefully accompanied La Omara with pared down piano behind “Dos Gardenias Para Tí” and “Besame Mucho” as the crowd roared. To top this, he then brought out two current US jazz greats, New Orleans trumpeter Terrence Blanchard and Philly’s Christian MacBride on standup bass. They stayed with the combo for the rest of an amazing evening; both looking glad to be in 86-degree Havana in December, playing with such a hot ensemble.

 

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So how was Culture doing in Cuba a week after the passing of Fidel? All partying had been cancelled during the luto period of mourning. But international festivals must go on. And though all the popular-priced tickets (20 pesos, 10 peso students) for the Jazz Fest opening gala had sold out, some tix were still available to tourists, at a whopping $20 US. But then some foreign tour groups must have bribed their way in and took over whole rows of sold-out seats., creating verbal conflicts between newly entitled visitors. But the rest of the huge Teatro Mella (the same size and period as the dearly departed Coronet Theater  in SF) was cool. And the organizers adjusted by simply half-filling each aisle with folding chairs and standing folks four-deep in the back. Did I already mention that the concert was glorious?

The film festival was put on by venerable government film institute ICAIC, which in past decades has released prestigious films including Santiago Alvarez’ documentaries from the ’60s like “Now,” a history of the US civil rights movement narrated by Lena Horne, and the prize-winning Cuban gay classic “Fresas y Chocolate”(1997 Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio). The festival, utilizing 14 mid-Havana theaters as venues, showed an average of six films a day in each one—over a period of 11 days! Film fanatics, along with ordinary Havana residents, lined up an hour in advance of each showing, especially with the entry price of 2 pesos (8 cents US),  Yet even this could not go without a typically Cuban hitch. An hour before one popular Cuban film, a line formed while in the ticket booth a seen-it-all employee counted money: once, then the same bundle of bills again, until on the third count she started to fall asleep. “Are there tickets for the film?” I asked. “No tickets,” was her mumbled response. “Come back at three.” But the film would start at three, and I already knew they refused entry after a movie began. Thinking it was my Spanish, I asked a Cuban in the line to try to find out what was up. After an equally hopeless exchange with her, it looked like she didn’t sell tickets, that was someone else’s job. “Eso es Cuba,” was his dispirited assessment. Luckily, trying at another theater, a patron mentioned that you could always buy a passport of 7 tickets for 10 pesos. Done!

The Cuban ideal is that nobody be excluded from Culture. Remember that the first national campaign of the Cuban Revolution (even before the nationalization of foreign holdings) was a literacy campaign that reached 100% of the population, all genders, ethnicities and occupations in three years. Victory was proclaimed in the fight against illiteracy by 1963. And Cuba continued through the US boycott to be the cultural vanguard of Latin America, with world-class dancers, musicians, writers and filmmakers, even baseball players. Yet it has remained a social backwater because of inflexible rules from above and the attendant lack of initiative. The Cuban Communist Party is right to worry that many among the young generation may wind up with no concept of the necessary sacrifice and fortitude of their elders.

When we were here in 2001, practically everybody in the country was reading, be it  textbooks, novels,  newspapers, and especially romance novelas and comic books. Not anymore. With three channels, TV is now fairly ubiquitous. And telephones are no longer so rare that entire blocks got their messages from the one lucky neighbor that had a landline. Cell phones have begun their cultural takeover, Android and Google are not yet in the house, but AirBnB is in the waiting room. The US Government (read CIA) tried and failed to set up a bot-like social media app called ZunZuneo that peppered Cuba with “surveys and questionnaires”. Can Tinder and Grindr be far behind?

Those hotspots of conversation and flirting and complaining, the plazas in every Cuban city and popular parts of The Malecón are now full of people looking down at their phones. One difference, though—here people share their phones, and what they have discovered on them, with each other. Another difference? Connectivity comes at a premium, as much as $2 or $3 US to buy wifi access cards good  for an hour. This was expensive even for us. And  when I mention US dollar prices, I am actually talking about “convertible currency” CUCs which unlike actual US dollars are legally in circulation. Changing 100 US gets you only 87 CUCs. Euros and other currencies are traded at a much less punitive exchange rate. But hey, we have kept the island suffering under a boycott for decades. It’s payback time.

Most sales are still in Cuban pesos, outside of the tourist economy. Coffee that will be $1 CUC or more at an air-conditioned restaurant, is still 1 peso (4 cents) at the stalls on every street. And street vendors still chant their ages-old pregón, the unique cry for each item, be it for cebollas, mani or pan suave (onions, peanuts, soft bread rolls). Women call the vendor to stop, lower a basket from a laundry-bedecked balcony, pull it up on its rope.

Another tradition shows staying power is the persistence of the Yoruba religion based in African customs that parallels Catholicism in Cuba. Many wear necklaces and bracelets to indicate their belonging to an orisha, and initiates of both genders wear all white. I used to work with Cuban refugees to the States; they had arrived when Fidel responded to charges that Cubans were not free to leave by emptying his prisons and creating the Mariel boat lift. Most of the “marielitas” that I worked with still had santería altars behind the doors of their SRO hotel rooms on the 6th Street Skid Row in San Francisco.

Another thing that hasn’t changed is the presence of police on random corners. Their increase or decrease has always been a clue to latest Cuban Communist Party policies. Many hold muzzled attack dogs on short leashes to enforce revolutionary morals, by intimidating queers for instance. I had the unfortunate experience of having one of those monsters growl and immediately lunge at me, getting about two feet away from my face. I took the chance of demanding to know of the officer, in Spanish, if he was incapable of controlling his dog? People on The Malecón later told me it was no slip, that they regularly experience such near-assaults. While CENESEX, the pro-sex, pro-gay and pro-trans government agency, headed by no less a figure than Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of Wilma Espín who started the Cuban Women’s Federation and her husband Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother and now president. But this does not eliminate daily, petty and sometimes serious oppression of queers. In the biggest cities public displays of affection are still a no-no, unless you are a hetero couple, and most LGBT people are not out to their families.

Outside the drag bar kids still try to hustle the several CUCs cost of admission, and once inside the price of a beer or rum, about the same. All travelers are fair game, the perpetual line being “Where you from?” Italy? Germany? Mexican tourists are also relatively rich here. But we were at the bar until late last night, which provided more than enough of surly straight guy studs, giggling amateur possibly-18-year old prostitutes and Mafiosi-style bouncers.

Especially after the emotional catharsis of “Esteban” earlier this afternoon, we are both happy staying in for the night. We recently got back from a cross-island trip with stops at Bay of Pigs (including an amazing tour of a national park that included a cave filled with thousands of bats and a snake coiling and uncoiling from a cleft in the wall trying to catch one), at the French-ified town of Cienfuegos, home to singer/songwriter/bandleader Benny Moré (a Cuban Nat King Cole), and the cattle-rich city of Camaguey with its entire street for film buffs and excellent Casa de la Trova  (troubadours, traditional soneros) on the way to the far Oriente, Cuba’s tropical and majority Black second city of Santiago.

Though I lost my prescription reading glasses on a very long bus ride back from Santiago de Cuba, I’m now glad to just lay in bed to read the last chapters of Rabih Allamedine’s new novel, the Angel of History. Rabih, as well as being a Middle Eastern queer novelist and a friend, was recently nominated for the National Book Award for his last book, an Unnecessary Woman. His amazing and very gay new novel  flashes back to the Castro District during the height of the AIDS epidemic. So it provides an appropriate counterpart to an American’s view of the dilemma of Cuban life post-Fidel.

 

Earlier in the day I had wept and laughed with brave young Esteban. Tonight the guffaws and sobs are for me, for my generation and our youth.

And yes, Martí could well have been right about culture being the path to freedom, at least when it is freedom from the limitations of the past…Hasta la Victoria Siempre.

Visayas, Philippines Post

Ken says he has never been any place he loved more than here. We are on the small (circumference two hours by motor scooter) and witchy island of Siquijor. That is what most Filipinos think of it, based on its traditional healers. These are famous for a technique of passing a glass vessel filled with clear water and maybe a few black stones over the patient, which changes the water’s color and, depending on what is afflicting them, somehow fills it with non-liquid stuff. For example, shards of broken glass when passed over the joints of someone suffering from arthritis— now cured. Such white magic healers are harder to find these days. They’re old now and their children have moved off the island, often to pursue careers in the healing professions (just like many other Filipinos).

But rumors of dark arts on the island persist. Even voodoo dolls, which belong to the Afro-Caribbean vodun tradition. On the other hand the Philippine islands were connected from the 1600s to Spanish ones in the New World via the Galleon Trade in slaves, cane sugar, spices and gold. A more recent example was passed on to us: during an election year one friend of a cousin was campaigning for Estrada here and forgot warnings to drink only bottles you opened yourself, due to a rumored risk of poisoning. The first of their party to drink one promptly fell down unable to speak. Instead of freaking out, they immediately asked for a Healer to save the person, and an antidote was brought, which worked. The cousin’s pal was pleased that they had stayed calm; if they’d shown much alarm, the cost of the Healer would surely have been higher than 500 pesos ($12 US). This reputation for sorcery keeps most Filipinos away from the island, which may be what has saved it so far from the fate of degradation by tourism that has ruined Boracay or Phuket… and even Bali.

There are some small resorts for divers, and even a couple medium-sized ones, catering mostly to other Asians visiting from Korea or China, plus Europeans and a few Israelis or Kuwaitis escaping their respective national repressions. The Aussies and Americans mostly haven’t found it yet. So as yet there is no Mormon-owned Marriott or Malaysian-backed Shangri La, no U.S. fast food franchises masquerading as elegant dining spots, nor 7-11s replacing the mom-and-pop stores where everyone shops for beer or soap or petrol in one-liter Coke bottles to fuel the ubiquitous scooters and motorcycles.

But here on the windward side (for six months) of Siquijor Island, facing out toward the Sulu Sea, is the paradisiacal place that makes Ken so happy to be here with his cousin Pia and her daughter Samantha. And me too, to see him and to be with him, overflowing. It is more than just fun, snorkeling and learning to ride motor scooters around and across the island. But that is not enough. Just what is so perfect about this place, you may well ask.

It is not just the half-dozen bamboo nipa-hut style bungalows at the small Villa Marmarine, opened by a retired Japanese couple to help provide work and tuition support to put island kids through college. Nor the nearly empty super-fine white sand coral beach, which Ken immediately went down to; he came back excited to report that the dark patches in the shallows at low tide were not seaweed (that is fluorescent green) but thousands and thousands of tiny purple spiny starfish, plus the occasional sea urchin.

It was not merely that the welcoming wavelets were lukewarm, and the water clear to four feet down. Actually, the sea— dark beyond the shallows— he finds terrifying and immense. It extends north into the South China Sea, to the Indian Ocean south, and farther to the vast Pacific, way out to where the sun rises. “It’s like it is just waiting almost infinitely to come for you, to call you in and take you away,” he says.

We see the ocean from the deck chairs on our bamboo-floored balcony, through bougainvillea, nipa palmettos, a flat fan palm, a few maybe 3rd generation papaya trees bearing small green fruits and finally, at the sand’s edge a cluster of tall coconut palm trees— one is even leaning, ever so stereotypically, over the beach. The scene is straight out of Robert Louis Stevenson, the book or the movie (“Yaarrhh!” as Long John Silver continues to say), from The Island of Doctor Moreau (“Are we not men??”), out of Jack London’s tales of Hawaii or Paul Gauguin’s paintings of women in Tahiti.

But nope, it is not even the coconut trees or Treasure Island allusions that make this place perfect for Ken—and me. It is the fact that the locals are his people, Visayans, speaking the language his mother speaks and her ancestors spoke back before the time that Magellan first make contact with them, just 90 miles away on the larger island that would become the Spanish colonial capitol of Cebu. And where he was summarily dispatched via machete by the native soldiers of chief Lapu Lapu. Since then the Visayans have gained a reputation for hospitality.

And his people are beautiful. Always kidding each other and ready to laugh (complaining means losing face), constantly social, in actual conversation or just the gossipy chatter called “chismis”. And unlike in other SE Asian countries we’ve been, here jokes and word play, irony and even sarcasm are understood. Then again, they have been living under colonization by the Spanish, the Muslims, the Americans and then during the war years by the Japanese. And it is considered better to laugh than to cry. It is also true that since the US arrived, and even after independence from us Americans, English has been the language of school instruction and is now the common tongue between the Tagalog of the national capitol Manila and the regional “dialects” like Visayan. which his family speaks.

Needless to say, Ken’s people are not only beautiful on the inside. Women in slim sarongs, skin-tight jeans or even in Daisy Dukes run most of the businesses here, and usually own them (all except for the important corporate ones, such as San Miguel beer or the shipping lines). Filipinas score in every world beauty contest. And Trixie Maristela, a “ladyboy” from here just won the “alternative” World Queen Pageant in Bangkok, which gets broadcast all across Asia to an Oscar-sized audience.

And the guys. They are gorgeous and they are showing off everywhere. Tatted and sunglassed ones on motorcycles. Svelte ones in school uniforms with tight shorts packed into jeepneys, or working class muscled ones hanging off of motorized trikes. And at night, when almost all girls are kept in at home, the boys and men are out on the street, half without their shirts on. Even if males are not to your taste these guys demand attention.

And there are too many stories about sexual adventures between straight guys and gays to dismiss. I was once with an ex visiting his hometown, on a jeepney with ten of the guys he grew up with. They asked in Tagaog if I was his husband. “One of them,” he shot back, and then translated for my benefit. Have you slept with any of them, I asked, rather aghast. “All of them! When I was growing up here, one at a time they would knock on my bedroom window. But not in public.” There are also the usual tales of married men who were “so drunk I didn’t know the girl was a guy.” Sure you didn’t! One straight friend told us that most of the single guys who visit from the oil-rich Arab states come not for females but for males. He’d lived in Kuwait, where he and a gay colleague were once stopped and arrested, “because the cop was attracted to my friend.”

But here even the hetero guys are sweet, good natured and friendly (though maybe more so to foreigners?) and are highly sentimental. As with all romantics everywhere, they are quick to be hurt, and very capable of lashing out when drunk. Their taste in music tends more toward soft rock like Air Supply, even among those who sport Megadeath t-shirts, and embraces singers like John Denver and even Johnny Mathis. And then there are the “mayas,” straight-identified males who just happen in bed to prefer “bakla” or “bayot” in Visayan—a conjoined word made out of “bay” (female) with “iyot” (penis). Ken’s 78-year old uncle filled us in on that word origin!

It stands to reason. Many boys are as slim as ingenues, but may have definition from hard work. And a lot have style, the coolest clothes and haircuts like TV stars. Others however do act out effeminately, as a challenge to the world; they can be easily spotted and heard screeching at top decibels with their girl friends in the mall. Did I mention that mall social culture in Cebu City started a few decades ago with a Robinson’s department store at Fuente Osmena where kids hung out all day hoping someone would buy them something— and has proliferated into The Place To Be for everyone on weekends and holidays. There are now seven full-fledged malls, all are air-conditioned but differ along class lines. Among the bigger locales, one has an I-Max screen in its multiplex, another an ice skating rink, and several feature internal mini-railroad trains. Here young boys and girls, or boys and boys, try to hook up. Plus of course via texts and online, with everyone on iPhones and Samsungs at the high-end malls. There’s no need for gay bars in Cebu several people told us, because gays are a sizable and accepted part of every place.

Gender and sexuality aside, Visayans are sincerely warm people. And here on Siquijor island we can see them as they have always been— it is like Cebu City seen 35 years ago. Before the malls, the 7-11s on each block, and before the big hotels arrive. They probably will, though, now that an airport is being built here. But for now a “Where are you from?”  is a real matter of curiosity, not just a lead-in to another sales pitch. Little girls on the streets wave to us. Their mothers smile. Daring adolescent boys try to slap hands as we ride by. Older boys respond to our huge smiles and men nod in greeting.

When I stop to take a picture of an old-fashioned wood frame house from the last century, the family there invites us into their backyard, to the one-year anniversary of the passing of their grandmother. We do accept glasses of water, but not the plates of fiesta food they proferr, since there are six of us. And for Filipinos to make such invitations is almost mandatory. Yet not insincere.

 

SE Asia Travel Blog 2, 1 January 2016

THE LADY & THE MONKS

All these finch-y birds are tweeting and chirping from about five feet off our little balcony, even though they haven’t found the sunflower seeds I put out. A big crow comes a craw-ing, followed by another. The finches stop their chirp and hop up to the house’s eave. Crows finish their noise and fly off eventually, and the little guys return to their branches and restart their song.

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street football with a rattan woven ball

Two to a bike, school kids peddle past razor wire-topped walls around the mansion across the road. But on our side are 20-foot tall bamboo grasses, banana trees and some unknown fruit tree welcomes big black moths. Just up the road is the old house where The Lady’s father, General Aung San was assassinated by the generals who took over in 1946 after he agreed to independent zones for the country’s ethnic tribe peoples. The wars still continue against them, seventy years later.

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But daughter Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced Chi) just won the country’s first real election in decades— by an amazing 90%. And the entire country is waiting the promised transition. But will the crows actually fly away?

I’ve wanted to visit Myanmar since it was Burma (named by the Brits after the majority ethnicity). This was a land of Great Britain’s rubber plantations (along with the slavery practiced around rubber in the 19th century Congo by the Belgians and in the Amazon against the Putumayos by everyone). It was the Burma of British Imperialist par excellence Kipling in a poem put to music:

On the Road to Mandalay/Where the flyin’ fishes play
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China/‘Crost the Bay!

And on the other hand, also of George Orwell’s biting colonial critique novel Burmese Days. Either way, our take on this country has always been Eurocentric.

Its military rulers have: sacked the country of its riches in rubies and other gems; delivered its resources like natural gas exclusively to China; created Naypyidaw, a new capital built as a high-security gated community for the Army brass; terrorized its own population; all the while maintaining genocidal campaigns against its minority groups to the North, East and South. Its “outlaw nation” status was fully justified.

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By contrast, the grace and calm fortitude shown by Daw (lady) Aung San Suu Kyi since her 1990 election to president was overturned by the military and she was placed under house arrest has been an inspiration to the whole country, and then the world. Adoration of her is widespread, especially in the liberal cities. Her picture, as well as that of her national hero father, were forbidden. Now they are displayed in every cafe and business. Even the sole Jewish synagogue in Yangon (ex-Rangoon) no longer has a congregation, but proudly shows its last caretaker in two photos with Ben Gurion (including one in Burmese drag!) and one visiting Suu Kyi in her home.

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Obama has visited Myanmar twice, in a first critical visit meeting with The Lady as well as the government. In one of his only unalloyed international policy successes, Obama’s State Department got a promise of democratization in exchange for dropping the country’s outlaw status in 1990. This led to the relatively clean election this year, and her party’s overwhelming victory, which surprised even the military. Strange, isn’t it, how people used to being yessed all the time come to believe it? Their own hype Trumps reality.

Aung San Suu Kyi is herself forbidden by a special law from running for President, due to her “criminal” past, though she swears she will still be the leader. Now even the top general of the dictatorship says he has changed course, and will support her as the country’s natural ruler, and do everything in his power to change that law. Why the remarkable about-face? Some say his hip son sat him down and had a talk with him. This makes sense, but even if apocryphal it makes a good story.

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Our last full day in Yangon fell on the Full Moon, a particularly auspicious day in the Buddhist calendar. We had planned to return to the huge central Schwedagon Paya (pagoda) where 1000s are expected. But now, with a better appreciation of Yangon’s heat and humidity, plus distance and crowds, we decided to go back to our local temples. We had walked up to one on our first night in our McMansion neighborhood, but got lost in a warren of monks’ quarters and never found the temple with the huge Seated Buddha.

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Today we found it. And it was stunning, a beautiful smile, skin painted white, lips red, snails-hair in perfect curls. We only saw one other foreigner and he looked like a missionary, talking in English to an clearly well-informed Burmese guy in board shorts and a Cools t-shirt. I asked a question and got a long, intelligent response, though he was not a guide but a serious theological student of Buddhism. The missionary-type said he was late getting back to his wife, and the Buddhist guy offered to show us the way to the Reclining Buddha across the way.

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It turned out to be probably as big as the famous one in Bangkok, but was not covered in gold. Lying on his left side, propped on one elbow, this is the Buddha at the time of his death, with a calm only Enlightenment can provide. He knows all his past lives, but that this would be the last. And his body appears to be about the size of half a football field, or at least a full basketball court. At the end you see the soles of his feet, about 25 feet high, covered in a pattern of arcane signifiers representing all the past lives he walked through.

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We were able to ask our guide about the monastery we had walked through that night. It turns out there are 46 separate monasteries for monks and novices, and assorted Dhamma centers or schools for children, connected to the Reclining Buddha temple! And sixty-some more around the Sitting Buddha. It is a huge concentration of monks, each walking in file every morning to receive rice and curry offerings for their daily meal, along the same road that houses the German Embassy as well as the house and museum of General Aung San. This is where he was assassinated in 1946, two years before the British granted Burma its independence. It is the house where Aung San Suu Kyi was born, and her baby brother drowned in the swimming pool before the family moved out in 1953. The Victorian era houses on the hill followed the monasteries by many thousands of years, of course, not vice versa.

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Our guide’s teacher joined us for the visit to the Reclining Buddha. And was happy to answer questions before he left us for the noon meal, the last time monks eat during the day. He was less theologically inclined than his student, but told us the story of the Monks Protests. In response to a raising of gasoline prices by the military government, which of course led to much higher food and living costs for the poor, the monks had held peaceful prayer vigils at some offices. They did this because regular people would have been imprisoned if they had tried even this mild form of protest. But the military, paranoid to the nth degree, sent police and fired on the monks, killing some. The protest vigils continued and31 were joined by regular Burmese. This was the real turning point in the military dictatorship’s stranglehold on power based on fear.

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We gave a donation to the monk’s order, placed in his Buddhist prayer book (in English!), and received a blessing for safe travels and good luck. After the guide helped us through the same maze we had gotten lost in the other night, he also asked for a donation. Theravada, the type of Buddhism found in SE Asia (different from the Mahayana of Japanese Zen) places more emphasis on merit, the gaining of it through offerings, as well as the usual rules of right living. We were glad to contribute, both to the school’s master and to our helpful guide. It was a real pleasure being led through the monastic quarters, seeing dozens of dogs that had discovered some sanctuary there from the rocks and kicks and starvation outside the temple walls, monks bathing in a building near a centuries-old royal Victorian house, knowing when to take off our shoes (including for one 100-meter stretch past an old imperial cemetery). Sadly, the one thing we forgot to ask was why the Buddha has snail hair. It is a mystery.

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So who is responsible for the sea-change going on in Myanmar? Certainly the monks, standing in for the whole population. Credit is due to Barack Obama for brave leadership that encouraged the people to believe that the world cared. And of course, to the national heroine Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, for her quiet determination over 25 years of arrest.

But the change will not come without problems. The loosening of dictatorship, as we have seen in countries from Iraq to Egypt, does not only lead to freedom. There are rightwing Buddhist monks urging genocide against the Muslims in the South, pitting one ethnic minority group (the Rakhine) against another (the Rohingya). And Aung San Suu Kyi has maintained silence on this, at least publicly. In fact, she must be very careful about how she first exercises power. The military retains control of all state resources for now, and talks about a “slow, careful” transition. Which probably means they feel there is still money to be raked out, and are in no hurry to give up their scams.

But change will come, if not as easily as one hopes. The finch bird is on the branch, puffing out its breast feathers. And the crows are on notice.

SE Asia Travel blog Dec. 12, 2559 (year of the Buddhist Era)

MARKY AND THE KING OF SIAM

When I first visited Bangkok in the 1980’s, skyscrapers were still rare, and many peoples’ wooden houses fronted small canals, with tipsy little canoes connecting them to the great river Chao Phraya. Selective memory of walks along a canal neighborhood highlights a hawker pushcart that served steaming pad thai, and a tinier one offering an amazing mix of pastel green  worm-like confections, plus sweet beans and various pink and black chewy things.

One time at a movie theater with hand painted posters ,  a vendor grilled cuttlefish  over charcoal on a cart, then put them through hand-cranked metal rollers, shredded them and sold them with a little plastic bag of chili vinegar. It sure beat popcorn.

“Kraithong”, the feature they showed, was based on Thai folklore, about the Crocodile King, a very butch guy with the power to animorph into a reptile, in a cave under the river with his bevy of sexy queens in alligator-print bikinis. Even without understanding a word, it was totally charming—until one scene. Some toddlers frolicked on the river shore and children swam happily, before a crocodile pulled them under. And they were gone, screaming. But the audience reaction was more shocking yet. When each child disappeared, there was a ripple of laughter. As we ate our cuttlefish strips, I recall thinking: This is the strangest country I have ever seen.

Three or four visits later it no longer seems so strange. But exquisitely sensitive in ways we barely discern.  And understandably proud, as the only land in SE Asia to have never been colonized. As was seen in “The King and I,” where Anna found ways to confront her boss, the Siamese king.  Theirs is a deeply non-egalitarian society, in which everyone knows their place in the hierarchy, so never loses face. Even that laughter in the theater makes sense to me now. It was not cruelly ghoulish, but came out of deep uncomfortableness—one of several dozen forms of smiles and laughs that Thais can distinguish between, and name. These include the Boss is Wrong but Boss is Always Right smile.

Since that visit almost all of the canals have disappeared under a system of eight-lane roads with pedestrian overpasses. SkyTrain rails appeared above some major old canal routes (considered expensive to ride compared to the 2-cent public busses), and then an underground subway was built to carry more of the traffic that dozens of ferries and riverboat routes still transport across and along the huge river artery that snakes through Bangkok. It is not easy to move over 10 million people, a population that had increased two and a half times the population when I first visited.

On one trip we took a bus ride to Kanchanaburi, site of the Japanese war crimes shown in the David Lean film “Bridge on the River Kwai”, a version of WWII in which all the victims are British soldiers captured and tortured by Japanese warlords, instead of the entire local population. Before we even got out of the Bangkok metropolitan area (which is about 6,000 square miles) I looked down an alley at dusk, and yelled. Well, who wouldn’t scream if they saw an elephant being led out onto a major thoroughfare? None of the other passengers, that’s who. I heard another of the dozens of Thai laughs, a not-unfriendly one perhaps called the Wow Look at That Ignorant Tourist laugh.

WELCOME ALONG!

This time Ken and I are back in Bangkok at the beginning of a 9-week SE Asian tour. It is the cool season, as opposed to the rainy season, which means a mild 88 degrees Fahrenheit on a good day, or 95 on a bad one. But in the central city we almost never walk in the direct sun, thanks to the luxury hotels, apartment buildings or condos, and Trump-like office towers on every block. And in Siam Square, the shopping malls. One after the other, easily a dozen, side by side. Working Class malls with electronics and an anchor department store. Middle-class ones with Forever 21 and Burberry. Then one with a Maserati dealership, another with a Rolls Royce showroom, and each with its own Louis Vuitton store. And an appropriately priced food court.

And all along this “miracle mile” is a Parade of Elephants. Statues of elephants, many painted in fantastical styles, from small ones to quarter-size. Families take pictures of their kids next to them. This is as close as they will come to a real elephant in Bangkok streets these days. It’s now illegal to lead them here—which was a form of begging, since Thais adore their royal animal. However, it turns out that walking on sun-heated concrete can cause these massive creatures to have heart attacks. So it is a good thing that they remain in the North country.

the fresh fruit and veggie tree
the fresh fruit and veggie tree
Thai Art-deco theater in a mall with Dhami Boo.
Thai Art-deco theater in a mall with Dhami Boo.

On an unintentional mall tour (it’s the quickest way to get to our public transportation) there are some actually worthwhile sights. They include:

*A five-floor cultural center with art-based stores features an demo of Virtual Reality tech, across from a ’50s art deco movie palace.

*An internal courtyard with a tree made entirely of fruits and vegetables, fresh ones.

*A gorgeous thin 20-something in a black Versace suit demoing one of those Segway-like skateboards in a high end gadget shop. Sorry, no photo of him, as I was thrown completely off-balance in more ways than one.

*Two high-end shop-girls on the floor trying to fix the automatic sliding glass front of a store.

between two malls
between two malls

Outside every mall are multi-story Christmas trees, but without Xmas icons– no Santas, much less Baby J’s. Instead, one features a mickey mouse-eared theme, another Snow White with her Seven Dwarves. Plus, enough lights to power a small third-world country. Which Bangkok is not, if it ever was. Although in the country there is still enough ethnic discrimination, rural poverty and government corruption to go around.

 

FAERIES, A FERRY & A FLOATING MARKET

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On Sunday we are led by faerie friends on a bicycle excursion to Bang Krachao. This is a less developed almost-island in a curve of the river across from the cargo ship docks, known as Bangkok’s “green lung.” Getting there involves 20 minutes of peddling via huge intersections and through an industrial part of the city, then a 5-minute ferry boat ride, which used to cost 5Baht, but now goes for an inflated 25B including the bicycles, which is 75 cents US dollar. Then a ride past farms and small rural homes, and into an Eco-Park, on tree-lined paved roads beside lakes, unpaved ones through jungle marshland. It is an enchanting place, full of birds and butterflies but remarkably free of mosquitos. (Ken disagrees, as he got bitten there.)

At the park’s far end, we are led by Dhami Boo, our experienced farang (foreigner) faerie guides us onto a maze of raised concrete walkways over watery food-growing areas. They are about three feet wide; quick turns require slowing the bikes down. I hear that a doctor friend of ours, on a prior visit, fell off the walkway and into wires and waterways—three times. It is a little like an Indiana Jones ride, of about 3 kilometers. So my both nerves and my butt are happy when we arrive at our destination.

A little tired on bicycle in 95-degree weather
A little tired on bicycle in 95-degree weather

The Floating Market is no longer held on boats and now happens every weekend. Three long rows of stalls under awnings draw tourists from Bangkok, almost entirely Thais, but with the occasional foreign Asian or European farang. It is a real farmers’ market, and the offerings are local, artisanal and amazing. I hear there is a section for Chinese-type plastic goods, toys and clothes, but we never saw it. Instead, each booth offers fresh discoveries. There are seed stores and potted tropical plants, some hung in empty tiny coconut shells. Also fanciful toys made of coconut shells. Bunches of bananas. A stall of plastic bagged chili sauces. An herbalist. A lady and her son selling tropical fruits they grow; I buy a papaya, and a cherimoya (custard fruit) for a mere 35 cents— they go for $6 a pound back in SF, if you can find them.

herbalist goods
herbalist goods

Sweets are sold on a stick (deep friend balls of sweet dough around a sweet-savory chicken sausage), in a ceramic boat (taro pudding with candied coconut and grilled shallots), or in a scraped half baby coconut (coconut ice cream with all those chewy things I’d first tasted on the old canal), plus many more we didn’t try. Each was about 20B or 55 cents, plus an extra 5B for all those chewy add-ons. But first were the food stalls. Fiery northern fishball soup. Green papaya salad with fermented (and stinky) black crab. Clear broth with veggies and chicken feet. Chili-crusted fried chicken. And those are just some that we had at one stall among dozens.

Isaan northern Thai hawker  stall fare
Isaan northern Thai hawker stall fare

Next to it was a juice place featuring a fruit I had never seen, nor had anyone in our group. The one Thai guy with us, though he grew up on a large fruit and poultry ranch in Isaan, said they never grew it, so he wouldn’t try it. The teenager vending it said it was a fa-kaw, accent on the kaw! A next-stall neighbor said it’s called gac fruit (scientific name Momordia cochinchinensis). And it is incredibly strange-looking, all spiky day-glo orange on the outside and Vampirella purple with large black seeds inside. He let me try some of a cut opne one. It tasted…sweet. The juice was thick red nectar, not like any other fruit I know. I am in heaven.

What is it? Gac!!

This is the best market I have even been to. Not Byzantine like the one in Budapest, not as gargantuan like the sook in Fez. Nor what Les Halles must have been like in Paris, before it was torn down to become the Pompidou Art Center. But small, homey and very relaxed, with handmade wooden benches and gazebo areas dripping with flowers and vine tendrils and lined with giant ceramic water jars the size that Sabu jumped in and out of in my favorite film of 1940, “The Thief of Bagdad”.

Ali Baba water jars
Ali Baba water jars

I love this place. Though “designed” there is nothing Disney-fied about it. It is done on a small scale to provide local sellers a chance to market to an adjacent megalopolis. And it is by a canal. So as it turns out, the old Bangkok I remember is not quite lost forever in the face of modernity. And it seems obvious that Thai people who arrive, by jeep or motorcycle or bike, appreciate it too.

calm at Floating Market
calm at Floating Market
kid playing in a gazebo at the Floating Market
kid playing in a gazebo at the Floating Market

One last note, for all our Jewish friends out there. It is Hannukah, though no mall decorates for it. But it is also the King’s birthday, called Father’s Day since Bhumidol Adolyadej, king of Siam since 1946, is absolutely beloved here. He and the queen are revered as the ones who have always watched out for the interests of the poor, and he’s really seen as the father of each Thai. There is huge fear at what may come at his unspeakable but immanent demise, particularly between the factions of Red Shirts (rural) and Yellow Shirts (urban) who have battled it out on the streets and in parliament during recent years. Because he is gravely ill now, on the King’s birthday this year there will be no fireworks, but at dusk everyone will come out of their house with a lit candle to say a prayer for his health. Here there are no giant menorahs or cartoon Maccabees. But it is a festival of lights nonetheless. Also the time of year I remember my own father Ben Baruch Freeman’s yahrzeit. May his memory, as we say, be for a blessing.

Matches made in heaven

My good pal Lisa and I, at school.

San Francisco Education Fund Blog

In honor of Valentine’s Day, we’re celebrating the unexpected friendships that have formed between some of our volunteers and teachers. We sat down with a handful of our volunteer/teacher pairs to talk about how their partnership has unfolded since they started working together. Check back each day this week for a new story.

A dynamic duo: Mark Freeman and Lisa Bishop

Inside jokes. Witty banter. Completing each other’s sentences. It’s what’s expected after 18 years together, right? That’s how long volunteer Mark Freeman has worked alongside Ms. Lisa Bishop. In that time, they’ve worked at four schools and shared their passion for hands-on learning with hundreds of students. They’re both happily married (to other people), but form quite the dynamic duo in the classroom.

Q: How were you paired with Lisa?

Mark: Your organization looked at my background and said, ‘Oh, we think we know somebody you might enjoy volunteering…

View original post 734 more words

The Quilt Goes to Motown, Mark Freeman Part 4 of 4– originally published in Coming Out! August, 1988

final part of 1988 cover article on the visit of the Names Project Quilt to Detroit

What Makes a Volunteer?

I ask a group of three “unfolders” what brings them to this work, and all three answers are the same: Guido. “He used to cut my hair. I was impressed by his commitment to a cause greater than himself. My commitment has always been to family, but he seemed able to make all these people family.” “Same here. He has the ability to cause people to feel. He begins by taking interest in you and it’s contagious. Before you know it, he’s got you under his spell.” “Guido’s my older brother. A lot of his friends are gone. He used to live in San Francisco and I used to go visit him with my wife and baby.”

Guido, it turns out, is the volunteer coordinator for the Detroit Names Project. How does someone become an “inspiration?”

“I was a studio hairdresser, movie studios. So when I moved to San Francisco I was already loaded, had a soon on Union Square near Macy’s in ’74, a house on 16th and Castro. I was shooting speed, speedballing with coke, and was always with boyfriends who were broke. Form there I went downhill to the Tenderloin, the Slot, a sleaze hotel South of Market, and the sex clubs in between. No way I was going to quit there.

“So I moved back here to Detroit to stop. No program. I just quit. But it was during that time that my best friend Jay—we used to have a summer home on Fire Island together during our twenties, see, we were both studio dressers when we were 18, we thought we were the Golden Boys—well, he got sick and died then. In fact, when he died, that’s what he said to me: ‘We lived the Golden Days. Who thought they’d ever end?’

“But these are the Golden Days now, I think. These are the times when gay men can discover the sense of their own worth—all we were doing then was coming out of the closet and being party boys with the sort of ‘movie star quality’ that gay men were supposed to have, dressing well, doing every kind of drug.

“There’s something more, something innate in gay men: a sensitivity of spirt, and I discovered it in myself. I’d never thought it was there. You know, I used to not talk to certain people, if they didn’t ‘walk right.’ Now I spend my mornings putting socks on people who can’t walk at all.

“I know what made be become an AIDS volunteer was missing that time during the last stages of Jay’s illness, due to drugs. Now, I realize that however small the thing is that we for someone, there’s no way to measure it. Taking a guy to the store this morning, no big deal, it was an hour to me. But it was the first time in a a month he’d gotten out, anywhere. It matters.”

Such conversions “on the road to Damascus” can seem unbelievable, or like cloying televangelism, until we know someone like that personally. Seen from one side of the Treatment vs. Transcendence controversy*, this may smack of fatalism, or a tendency to romanticize death in the gay community. But AIDS is not a historical aberration; some such disaster has occurred in every generation. Only since the advent of antibiotics have we somehow convinced ourselves that we are exempt from mortality. People like Guido are not giving in to death, but they have learned that it is impossible to make love to Life without a willingness to embrace its other side.

*During the ‘80s a false dichotomy put ACT UP activism (“Your laws are killing us!”) on one end and Louise Hays’ A Course In Miracles (“You can will yourself well!”) on the other. It might help in the understanding of that division to recall that the successful AIDS meds treatment “cocktail” was still nearly seven years in the future at this writing. The only medication then available was AZT alone. About half of those who chose to take it died of its side effects. And among those who refused it, half died of AIDS complications.

Civil War era, United States.

            “Come lovely and soothing death,                                                                                        Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,                                                                                 In the day, in the night, to all, to each,                                                                                                Sooner or later, delicate death.

            Praise be the fathomless universe,                                                                                               For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,                                                                        And for love, sweet love—but praise! praise! praise!                                                                               For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.”

Walt Whitman, When Lilacs Last In the Dooryard Bloom’d

RIP Queen
RIP Queen

The Streets, the Women & Children

The picture painted for me by this Infectious disease nurse is so bad it is hard to believe. “We have a 25-year old IVDU, probable ex-prostitute. She’s down to 95 pounds and hanging, literally, on her crutches. She couldn’t eat because her mouth sores [thrush] were so bad; she couldn’t sit because of her herpes. She sends her girl, a four-year old, two blocks away to a soup kitchen; the kid brings them back food.”

Another of the handful of nurses helping the worst-off make their way through a callous bureaucracy, takes me to see. The streets of Mack Corridor are potholed, most of the houses are boarded up, some with official red notices tacked to the door. More than not are empty, maybe from fires as far back as the Detroit Race Riots of 1967. Or else their owners just got sick of the neighborhood. This wood-framed one is a drug house.

You can tell, not because it is any more or less ramshackle than the others, but by the 11-year old sitting on the stoop all afternoon. He’s skinny, with the torso and long legs of a running gazelle, but his boy is not a runner. He is a spotter, old enough to watch the street for outsiders, and to be paid in crack or dollars.

He has instructions not to let anyone in, not even the tall blond nurse standing out on the sidewalk. But he knows her and sends a message upstairs for her patients to come down; a slim woman on crutches, KS bumps all over her face, and a little girl, cute as a proverbial bug, with corn-rowed hair and a cough.

“The mother is much better,” explains the nurse, “compared to a month ago when she was pointed out to us by her sister who is alienated from her but did care enough to get some medical care. This woman hasn’t let anybody touch her in over a year. We have found that’s a crucial thing, getting the first barrier down. She’s doing so well now; her doctor said it wasn’t the AZT: ‘It’s too early.’ Only one week. It’s the care and concern and knowing that someone is paying attention to her.

 

“Call me Champagne,” said another woman, kids running in and out of the scantily furnished but very clean living room of a brick house not far from 6-Mile and Woodward. “I used to carry money belts on airplanes, my boyfriend got me a stage passport. And I saw a lot of entertainment people come in to buy drugs; that was before I was shooting. We didn’t know anything about Crack, only Raw—heroin to sniff. It’s like different people. Heroin addicts’ bodies get all marked up, they get diseases. Still they take only so much, to stop being sick. But a crackhead, their mind is gone, baby. They do it all day and night, never get enough. Non-stop.

“I’ve go six kids but two of them I didn’t raise. Their grandmother did, upstairs. What’s important to me is that I stay healthy enough to take care of my babies.”

Like her, two of the kids are infected with the HIV virus; and the four-year old shows symptoms. “At first they thought he was retarded; he wouldn’t talk and walked with a limp. Then they found an ear infection== his balance was knocked off. By then they had taken my kids away, and his foster parents said he wouldn’t eat. Partly it was sickness, but party he was withdrawn because he was 16 months old and he’d never been away from me before.

“The boy was finally examined and diagnosed. The foster parent heard the word AIDS, she was real religious and had other foster children, so when she found out, I got my boy back. Two months later, I got the other kids back, too. He’s four years old now, and taking AZT, but none of us has ever been hospitalized. The baby (who also tested positive) is 15 months old and she seems to be doing fine, even in this heat wave.” Her daughter’s long dark hair is blowing in the fan’s draft as she tilts her head back toward it, smiling.

“I’m a pretty private person, that’s why I haven’t’ got into a support system. But my family knows. My son’s pre-school teacher knows. My grandmother, she definitely knows but may not really understand. She is a trip—a retired factory worker, Chrysler. What you call a beer drunk. She talks about people all day, me included. But if I need her, my grandmother is in my corner.

“She’s the one who called those people and told them I had abandoned my children for a month. That’s what made me stop using drugs. They took my babies away. When my boy got home from the hospital, he was so puny and looked so pitiful and I felt so guilty—that’s when I stopped for good.“

Champagne says nobody is willing to admit they have AIDS because so many people think you can touch somebody and get it, “but I’m too wrapped up in my own situation to do anything for anyone else. My kids have got nobody but me. This girl is how I’m keeping my sanity, she keeps me from falling apart.”

 

A Puerto Rican woman can’t think of a name to give herself, no hero or role model, but says she wants it to be Spanish. I’ll call her Lola, as in Damn Yankees.

“They say I’ve had the virus for eight years, but I don’t know. I was always shooting up; I was so fallen down I wouldn’t know anything from then. I first noticed, after I was in prison for a year, getting tired for no reason. I wasn’t doing drugs there.

“Every time I feel like shooting up now, I go to Vida Latina [the primary agency serving Hispanics]. Because all your friends are dope fiends, so there’s no place to run to, especially for us Latinas. ‘La Casa’ is a good place, but I don’t know if half of them really understand us. We’re liars. We’re cheaters. We say we’re clean, anything. We’re scared to trust anyone.

“But, you know, if I need help and I go to an addict, he’ll help me faster than a straight person would. All the junkies I know are willing to share; if nothing else, experiences. Even the ones whose tests came back negative. We’ve sat in my house and cried together. All we know is street shit, and there’s nothing to teach you about AIDS out there. One girl said, ‘I hear you got AIDS’ and I said yeah. Why not. I told her—my throat hurts, my lungs hurt, a pimple lasts a month. And there’s nowhere to run to at three in the morning.

“I’ve always made my money by cashing checks or boosting [thievery], since I was little. My father was a drug addict. I learned to dress up, I’d look like Marilyn Monroe, different wigs. I’m a booster; it doesn’t matter if they’ve got a chain on something, I find a way.

“There’s only one thing I can say I’m proud of. I’ve never given my kids away. People talk about us like we’re dogs. People say drug addicts don’t care about their kids, but they’re wrong. I have a daughter, 16, that’s been staying with me. ‘You’re my mother,’ she says, ‘I don’t care what you have.’ Last week I took my daughter and two of her girlfriends, whose mother is a drug addict like I am, to Bell Isle [Amusement Park]. It was the first time I’ve enjoyed myself in 14 years. I see now what’s important. And I heard one of them say, ‘I wish my mom did half the things for us your mom is doing now.’ We’re getting close, only at the end.

“But my two boys have already got [dealer-style] beepers. My oldest, I can see the anger and the hurt in his eyes, like, ‘Don’t feel sorry for yourself for having AIDS, you did it.’ He hates me. He was accepted into college. But instead it’s fast money, fast life. I think my kids are going through this because of me.”

Lola finishes: “I want to tell people, even if they have the virus, they still have a chance. Don’t share needles. Don’t just fuck with anybody without telling them. Tell them. I feel that people with the sickness are the only ones that understand.”

 images

 

Detroit Comes to the Quilt

It’s hard to imagine that the Names Project began little more than a year ago, with a meeting of eight people. It was a local response, recalling traditional family quilts stitched by loving hands. Its effect has now spread across a continent. It is an unusual message, here in death-avoiding America. And a deeply religious message, one found in the rites and rituals of every ancient culture: that a deep, soothing truth can be found in the midst of pain; that of a victory of love and pride over shame and fear. The Names Project Quilt may just have created the perfect modern manifestation for this tribal truth, and sent out an unlikely group of evangelists to share it. But rather than staying, relatively safely, in the gay ghetto of San Francisco, these evangelicals departed our left-coast Jerusalem for more hellenistic places, such as Phoenix and Detroit.

“I thought we weren’t going to have anyone here,” admitted Jack Caster, the tour manager who used to live in Detroit. “But there are a lot of families coming. Old people. Kids, groups of teens. And more Black people than in any other city except Baltimore, where their Black mayor came and read names.”

The cities in the South, Southwest and Midwest are facing farm crises, new unemployment, old divisions. They are places where sex, though practiced no less, is kept decidedly quieter. News of a “homosexual disease” may come, and be received accordingly. But when the reality arrives, it is too late to blame anyone. These are one’s own husbands, wives, children and parents. By naming, and thereby honoring each one as a person that belongs to us, the Quilt facilitates such awareness.

What places like Detroit, or mid-sized cities in the heartland, can teach about how to deal with some  new realities may lead the way for the rest of country in confronting the “next wave” of this crisis. The Quilt directly reached 8-10,000 Michiganders, even bringing in many from the suburbs who “hadn’t been downtown in years,” and raising some $15,000 for local AIDS service agencies.

“It’s a gritty old town,” says the dynamo Infectious Disease nurse who drove through a bombed-out zone within sight of the glittering new Renaissance Center and a multi[million dollar medical complex. “But it’s a good old town. People here, by and by, don’t live lightly; they’re driven. If you work for an auto company you work your average of 60, 80 hours a week. What happens if you’re laid off? If you live down here, you’re scrambling to survive.

“If you drive these streets early in the morning, you’ll see people lifting up the boards over windows and slipping out of all these brick buildings. It’s like a Hooverville. Or the Warsaw Ghetto. But the vegetables from that garden there will be sold in that empty lot over there, come August. It’s like a victory garden.

“Same with the families we see. Most of them demonstrate an enormous wellspring of loving and charity and grace and tremendous courage they never knew they had in them. The stigma is still there—people forced to live in the basement, or denied participation in holiday dinners. But with many others, AIDS really acts as the impetus to draw the family together. They realize that they have to set things aside—judgments about IV drug use, fear of the disease, homophobia—because truly they need each other.

Misheberach (Prayer for the Ill)                                                                       

May the one who blessed our ancestors, Sarah and Abraham, Rebecca and Isaac, Leah, Rachel and Jacob, bless _____________, along with all the ill amongst us, and all who are touched by AIDS and other life-threatening diseases. Grant insight to those who bring healing, courage and faith to those who are sick, love and strength to us and all who love them. Merciful Parent, let your spirit rest upon all who ill and comfort them. May they and we soon know a time of complete healing, a healing of the body and a healing of the spirit, and let us say: Amen.

                                    –from the prayerbook of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, San Francisco

The Quilt Goes to Motown, Parts 2 & 3: On Families and Warriors

Here are the second and third of 4 parts of an article originally published in Coming Up! in August of 1988, during the time of most deaths in the Epidemic, when yearly losses of those diagnosed with full AIDS were about 50%. But even then all was not woe and teeth-gnashing! Any questions about that period, memories or comments are all welcome below.

Babylonia-Sumeria                                                                                                           

“Oh Gilgamesh, why does thou run in all directs?                                                                                             The life thou seekest thou shall never find.                                                                                                  When the gods created man they gave him death.                                                                                         Life they kept in their own hands.”                                                                                   

–Epic of Gilgamesh

Sharing the Loss: Two Families

There is an AIDS bereavement group in Detroit, a support system for counseling family members. The group’s therapist at the Center for Attitudinal Health tells me: “There’s so much growth that you find in this work. I’ve also had to deal with my own illness. Nothing terminal (it is multiple sclerosis), but you do learn how to stop being a victim.” She puts me in contact with two women in the group. Sally’s mother lost her son and divorced her husband at the same time, two years ago. “When I was going through it, I had nobody, nobody at all. My family, my mother, my brothers, they all knew he was gay for the last ten years, and they knew what he had. But after he’s gone, you just can’t talk about it.”

She’s getting the afternoon off from work to go see the Quilt. Her boss understands. “He’s a nice young man, married.” At first she told him Ty had cancer, so she could borrow some money from the company, but felt so guilty, she had to go back the next day and tell him the truth. So many other people at work you can’t tell, of course, we even still have people there who are against ‘coloreds’!”

I spent six weeks in the hospital with Ty, and I can’t tell you how many boys died without their parents. I held four of their hands while they died. And I have three right now that I still write to. They just don’t have anybody. The last thing Ty talked about was how he wanted me to get involved in AIDS work. But aside from those boys, I haven’t.

“I wanted to bring him home, but there was no room. I wanted to bury him in Detroit, but back then there were few funeral homes who would deal with AIDS.” At Cobo Hall, she discovers that some unknown person in another city has made a quilt panel for her son. Awash in sobs and laughter, she ushers me over, to show me where her son is.

“To realize that there is really that much love out there in the world. Every parent should see this. You would have to know, whoever made Ty’s, knew him. See how tasteful his name is. He never liked anything garish. It’s just like him. And the material it’s on—that was his bathrobe. I had no idea this would be like this. But it’s sad, too, of course. So many young people.”

The other group member described her family, and its response, differently. “We’ll never be the same again. I’d say we’ve changed for the better. We drew closer and worked together as I never felt we could.

“ My nephew Ray died almost a year ago. At first, when we heard about making a panel, we wondered, ’Is this hokey– or what?’ Then, “’What do you put on it?’ Then, ‘Can we do it?’ Last Thursday we saw an article in the paper and finally decided. So we spent the Fourth of July weekend sewing it as a family.

“He loved spending time outdoors in the woods, even after his diagnosis. And we had a picture of him wearing this t-shirt that has trees and a setting sun over a lake, reflecting in the water, and an eagle rising. That had to be it. ’This is so lovely,’ someone said, ‘I wish Ray could see it,’ and then we realized: of course he’s seen it—it was his favorite t-shirt!

Early quilt panels
Early quilt panels

“He and his Aunt Betty were more like good friends, close in age (he was 36 when he died) and probably closer than I was with my own brother. Even with her, though, the one area he never talked about was his private life.

“We never really knew about his lifestyle, so we found out about his…’gayness’ along with his diagnosis. We wouldn’t call ourselves fundamentalist, you see, but I suppose other people would. His mother now says that if a person has a sexual preference, they must have been born that way. That’s not how she used to think. But people saw him as the most caring, generous person in the family; even if everyone else forgot Mother’s Day flowers, they came from him. And I think he was afraid of losing that positive image.

“He was probably being rational, not wanting to tell people. Where he was living, he worked for a family construction firm, as a trusted person who could do anything, ten or eleven hours a day, six or seven days a week. When they found out he had PCP [pneumocystis carinii pneumonia], he no longer had a job. That was when he came back to us. It happened again here, once. It was his best friend in this small Lutheran town in the Upper Peninsula where our family comes from. It’s real traditional. Right-wingers. And this one friend couldn’t handle it and was very threatened by it, I don’t know way; that was a real hurt for Ray.

“But when his other friends in the town heard about it, they were furious with this guy. And of the family members–we’re talking about 30 or 40 people, only one sister-in-law was afraid, but she’s always been a bit strange. Everyone else, maybe they were a little surprised, but they were supportive. His two great aunts, 65 and 72 years old, hopped into their little DeSoto and drove 600 miles to see him when they heard about his diagnosis. His daily care was mostly by his brother, a brother-in-law who came over and shaved him every day, his parents, a few aunts; we wanted to hover and mother.

“His father was in the building trades, a big sturdy man who never showed feelings. It was a big shock to Ray to learn that his father had cried on hearing the news. He had just retired himself, and so flew to his son and spent six or seven weeks there, then brought him up here to Detroit, stayed with him virtually every day of his life. His dad learned how to regulate the IV and hang bottles of DHPG for CMV [Cytomegalovirus] that kept Ray from going blind in his right eye—he’d lost the use of his right already.”

Ray’s father had cancer during those last months, but didn’t know it. He didn’t have time to think about his physical pain. “Now,” says Betty, “he may be looking at his own death, and he’s become closer to people. Scandinavian and German people tend to be more coolish, not a lot of touchy-feely. But over the past year, we’ve probably hugged and touched and said, ‘I love you’ more than we ever had in our entire lives.

“Ray gave us the opportunity to talk. Though it’s painful to talk about, he was able to help people feel comfortable. His older brother and dad are up now in the hometown. He brought two horses with him when he moved back, and they are being taken care of up there as if they were his own kids.

“It’s almost like I’m afraid to go see the Quilt,” she concluded. “Everyone came over here to see the panel, but I guess that is still within the family, sort of private. His mom is still trying to decide whether or not to list his last name when we turn in the panel.” It is a major decision for families brought up to keep private things private.

RIP Queen
RIP Queen

When the family finally brings their panel in to Cobo Hall, they’ve decided to include Ray’s full name, so that others can find it. They proudly display their handcraft: a beautiful piece of work, a masterpiece. And their photo shows that Ray, smiling and rugged in his t-shirt, was no less so.

Betty, after seeing the quilt: “It’s not your private sorrow anymore. At the funeral home, well I used to think that was barbarous. But here, all this sharing, tears, it’s been a good thing. You don’t feel like you’re hiding anymore. We share this loss. Eveyone is sharing in something bigger. It’s the whole world.”

_____________________end of Part 2

Coptic Text

            “It is said: This heaven shall pass away                                                                                                And the one above it shall pass away,                                                                                                              For the dead are not alive and the light Will not die.”                                                                                                                                                –The Gospel According to Thomas

The Three Musketeers

This city has more than its share of women infected with the AIDS virus. Several were willing to talk about it. One styles herself Jenna: “If I’d had a little girl, I’d have named her that.

“There are three of us who are friends. The Three Musketeers we call ourselves. You know, I’d never experienced that before, to be part of a group. I’d always been a loner. Now we three go out, meet twice a month, always get together.

“I’m not sure how I got HIV positive. I was married and he was taking all kinds of drugs. I don’t know which. My current boyfriend says he’s negative. He is a female impersonator, though. Guess where he is right now? He just called and says he has a job at a private party—at Aretha’s!! Can you believe it?

“Anyway, what does it matter how I got it? What can I do now, except safe sex. And I am very active, but it’s always safe and just with this one person. I did stop for a while. After a month of total depression, I started taking care of myself. Found the support group, got a bike, joined an exercise club. Lost 36 pounds. Like I say, the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Bringing a sister
Bringing a sister

Jenna explains that the next Musketeer would rather not talk. First, she’s angry. “Just angry, period. Also, she moved to a new city and took a job where she talks on panels about AIDS every day. It’s good, I guess, because there’s not that many Black folks willing to talk about it. But she gets tired of it.”

The third and last Musketeer calls herself Faith, “cause I have lots of that.” She is also on anti-depressants to help deal with her diagnosis and its complications, and with her two boys, ages 6 and 8.

“To everybody here, you have the Plague. See, I had a substance abuse problem. Alcohol and, well, I threw my back out and an MD prescribed Darvocet, then Percodans. Then my husband and I went on heroin for about a year. Finally I took my kids to a shelter, my husband moved out and I checked into a hospital for 21 days. Now I’m completely clean.”

She and her boyfriend are “very, very cautious. Can I be personal? See, I’ll be giving him head and he’ll say, ‘We don’t need a rubber.’ But I have mouth problems, canker sores, so I say we do. My new invention, though, is going to be mint-flavored nonoxynol 9. We could sell millions and be rich. More people would be giving head than ever. Strawberry. Evergreen. Girls wouldn’t mind, guys would be happy! Don’t steal this idea, now!

“Actually, he started out as a trick, which is how I met a clean guy, supporting my habit.” Her kids, she says, will eventually go to her brother and his new wife. “I love her. They’re into everything I am, except that I’m a Christian and they’re atheists; but that’s okay.”

Faith is in AA and the kids are in Ala-Tot. She tells about the 12 Step Program’s children’s books, in which Pepper the Dog’s mother keeps getting so upset and sleeps all day and forget to take him on walks. So he thinks he must have done something wrong. Until he talks to his cat friend… “They get it. They also know about AIDS. I showed them that video about Susie, that followed a woman with AIDS from day to day to the end. She died, and her baby and husband carried on, but it was beautiful, because they did it the way she wanted.

“When it was over, the 8-year old asked me, ‘Are you going to die?’ and I told him, yes, everybody dies, but we never know when. It could be tomorrow or a long, long time.” She has to figure out how to give them just enough information to satisfy them. “When they’re ready for the next step, I’ll give them more.

“I’ll tell you. This disease, either you get your shit together or you die. Sometimes you die even if you get your shit together. I look at it as a warning. You better enjoy your life, living and safe, while you have it.”

On the first day of the Quilt: “It’s devastating. I don’t want my kids to come here and see me. I guess I want them to say, somehow, ‘We finally got rid of her at 90! Funny how she thought she’d die at 30, but she sure held on.’ It’s hard, you see all the survivors who are suffering just as badly as those with the disease. I can handle my pain,” Faith asserts. ”It’s what happens to everyone else.”

Mythology teaches that our job                                                                                    here on earth                                                                                                                                    is to participate                                                                                                                         joyfully                                                                                                                                       in the sorrows of the world.”             –Joseph Campbell

Unfolders unfolding
Unfolders unfolding

 And a Handful of Other Warriors

Like elsewhere in this country, the first and foremost to do battle with the epidemic in Detroit were gay males. Wellness Network is still predominantly white and gay, but is now considerably more colorful, largely through the offices of a Black volunteer director. Wellness House Michigan is a live-in hospice working in coalition with organizations like Visiting Nurse Association and Black Family Development to coordinate care to a wide range of clients.

Women, as across the country, predominate in the next lines of support: lesbians; medical and nursing people and social service workers who see the ravages firsthand. Some minority organizations and religious groups have also found their way toward the front.

The real enemy, whether among homosexual or ethnic groups, continues to be Shame. Along with Guilt & Fear. A handful of embattled activists in each of these communities tries to reverse this reality. Here are what some of them have to say.

“Among PWAs [People Living With AIDS], about 75% have ocular complications, and 20% if those go blind from CMV, the virus. We’re encountering some racism and homophobia among the profession. So it is not an unusual response to put people somewhere on a waiting list and hope they die before you have to provide service.”                                                                                                –Professional Rehab Counselor

“It’s easier for the homosexual community. People care about them. Nobody cares about drug users from the Black community. IVDUs [now IDUs for Injection Drug Users] are categorized, stigmatized, abused…. One doctor convinced a father to talk frankly. It turned into some sensationalist commercial. The ad agency wrote lines for him to read in a script: ‘I killed my daughter. I killed my wife. I don’t want to kill anyone else.’ Of course, he refused.”                                                                                -–Community Health Awareness Group

“There is no end of horror stories about families of kids with AIDS. We know of three cases where a mother and her infant had to be separated before the bureaucracy would consider caring for the child under its ‘abandonment’ provision. One family’s friend of 27 years turned them in as a threat to the community. A foster mother’s family threatened to never let her see her own grandkids again if she went public in any way…. About 75-80% of pediatric AIDS cases here are Black and Hispanic kids. The number one problem is prejudice—not just racial, but also economic and religious differences. Before speaking to a Catholic agency I actually had a representative whisper in my ear, ‘Abstinence! Don’t mention condoms!’”                                                      –Children’s Immune Disorder

“We’re fighting to keep kids together with their mothers and at home. There’s a so-called ‘moral’ impetus to take the kids away. It’s not easy, like when the mother has to giver her kid AZT every four hours, all night, and the mother is usually sick. We teach them tricks: filling the night syringes before you go to sleep so you can just roll over and pop one in their mouth.”                                                                                                                                                                                        –Renaissance Home Health Care Nurses

“What is sad, particularly with gays within the Black community, is that if ever there was a time in history to come together, this is it. Instead it’s hush-hush. Detroit is staunchly Baptists. Some of these preachers have to start endorsing compassion. And the schools. The City Fathers have been dancing with economic ‘revitalization’ of the city, at the expense of realizing that a large segment of the population, and that means Black people, are in grave, grave danger.”                                                                                                                                    — Black Male Intellectual and Writer

East Africa

And when they name you, great warrior, then will my eyes be wet with remembering.                                                                                                                        And how shall we name you, little warrior?…                                                    Must we call you ‘Insolence’ or ‘Worthless One’?                                                Shall you be named, like a child of ill fortune, after the dung of cattle?    Our gods need no cheating, my child: They wish you no ill.                                                They have washed your body and clothed it with beauty.                                    They have set a fire in your eyes…                                                                        They have given you beauty and strength, child of my heart,                        And wisdom is already shining in your eyes, and laughter.                                                                                                                                                                                               

–Didinga Naming Song

_______________________end of Part 3