Little Red Caboose navigates among subways, choo-choos into Brooklyn. Stares out at gasoline alleys. The experience of the railroad platform is indistinguishable from the sights and sounds of the roads that run parallel. Barber Shop. Live Music. Juicy Cajun Seafood. Once aboard my train, I sit beside a window clouded over with sap and soot. An automated voice announces stops as I begin P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout. “This station is / Rockville Centre.” “This station is / Jamaica.” I stop in at Catland Books to purchase supplies, but it’s a small shop with limited stock, and the alignment of the place troubles me. Fat Tony sets the tone as I walk an hour and a half west to buy books at Unnameable, body drenched in sweat. Highlight of the day, though, is a leisurely, meandering, late-afternoon bike ride around Carroll Gardens and Red Hook with my brother. We pause before the waterfront, relaxing in the day’s fading light, Ellis Island visible in the distance.
Here I am, in another of these present-tense happenings and becomings. In this one, I become a godfather — or, more accurately, Sarah and I become godparents. The tale involves a bounce house, a ceremony, a gathering with family and relatives beside a canal. I go around doing what is asked of me for the sake of loved ones. Moments of sitting and listening bring no peace. Dipping back into Toni Morrison’s Paradise, I come upon the phrase “people lost in a blizzard” (272). Curtains covered with anchors is more how I’ve felt of late. Blue anchors, white background, pink trim. Morrison’s novel features a midwife named Lone who believes God communicates through signs to those who don’t play blind. “Playing blind,” writes Morrison, “was to avoid the language God spoke in. He did not thunder instructions or whisper messages into ears. Oh, no. He was a liberating God. A teacher who taught you how to learn, how to see for yourself. His signs were clear, abundantly so, if you stopped steeping in vanity’s sour juice and paid attention to His world” (273).
‘Tis suburbia, of a more intense sort than any other of the various elsewheres I’ve lived. Yield signs, flags everywhere. But also gardens, hydrangeas, bunnies. And some of the houses are quite lovely. Did I mention the bounce houses? Sarah and I counted no fewer than five such structures within a one-block radius of my sister’s house this afternoon as we returned from lunch. To live this way is to affirm castles on canals in some uprooted, replanted Venice Upon Oyster Bay. Despite reprehensible “Back the Blue” stickers on the backs of pickups and other bones one might pick with the place, why bother? Others have picked them clean, them bones, yet there they remain whether we attend to them or not. As do the seagulls, the waves, the motorboats. A cool breeze tickles behind my ear and down my neck. The wonder of a quiet moment. Thumbing the pages of Frank O’Hara’s collected poems, I happen upon “Autobiographia Literaria.” The poem reminds me of my own beginning, early stanzas equal to my own early sorrow. But with the affirmation of its final stanza, the poem arrives and I arise transformed, accepting both the good and the bad with equanimity.
I arrive to the beach before the others, grateful for these rare moments of silence. Before long, the beach disappears from sight. A fog rolls in off the water, leaving only the sound of waves cresting and receding. Next thing I know, it’s evening and I’m back at my sister’s place, staring up at seabirds. I imagine there’s more to report: a piece of green ribbon, one end tied to a lamppost, the other end dangling in the wind; small explosions — someone setting off fireworks in another part of town; nephews of mine chasing after an ice cream truck; anger, envy, disappointment, contempt — the bleeding, in other words, of my proletarian heart amid extravagant displays of wealth; plus continued study of hermetic philosophy so as to remain awake through all of this without being ruled and debased by it.
After a month abroad, reentry into American society is inevitably going to be experienced as a bad trip. Screaming children, lousy music, conspicuous patriotism and religiosity among one’s countrymen, time bled away in cars. The south shore of Long Island is no country for old Dharma Bums. I love the food, and the beaches, and the proximity to Manhattan — but this place that my extended family calls home is in most respects the cultural equivalent of a Superfund site. As I noted a few days ago, however, Eden remains in potentia all around us. That sense of possibility is the one worth keeping at the forefront of our collective imagination going forward. (Plus the sunsets here on the water these last few nights have been fabulous.)
My phantom appetite reopens old wounds as I drive along the south shore of Long Island, a place of radical injustice, like a theme park dedicated to the triumph of Italian Fascism. The planet groans beneath the weight of Blue Lives Matter monster trucks as La Famiglia orders an assembly of scungilli for an air show. How am I to practice zazen amid these sites of trauma?