Tuesday, July 26, 2011


July 28, 2011

Here in New York, the heat wave finally broke on Monday, sending the temperature plummeting from Friday’s high of 104 degrees to a mere 83. It was time to resume the activities of daily living, like washing clothes and running the dryer, before the next debilitating wave hits.
I can’t bring myself to turn on the dryer with the thermometer in triple digits. Besides doing my small part to avert a city-wide power failure, it seems crazy to pump very hot air into very hot air. Riding on the elevated trains that emerge from underground in the Bronx, you still pass apartments with clothesline pulleys strung from one building to the next, shirts and skirts and underwear fluttering like international flags — and flags of surrender — in the breeze. Once symbols of tenement blight, these little solar-powered devices could make a comeback as a renewable energy source. Plus, your clothes smell so good when you pull them in, and no static cling. I may get one myself.
Heat brings out the New Yorker in New Yorkers. Another ancient summer tradition is the opening of fire hydrants for instant refreshment and water-sport. No matter that the little park right down the block has a delightful walk-under fountain spraying a cooling mist 24/7, and no matter that gushing hydrants discharge millions of gallons of water into the sewer and lower the water pressure, keeping both firefighters and people in upper-floor apartments from getting their own critical supply. Despite the threat of a thousand-dollar fine for tampering with hydrants — the law was enacted in the Giuliani days, part of his “quality of life” initiative — it is still common to see hydrants open full blast, kids with boogie boards surfing in the surge or deflecting it to douse passing cars. (Forget to close your windows and you’ve got a rolling swimming pool.)
When I moved to New York from drought-ridden Southern California in the early 1990’s, I was appalled by the waste of this precious element. In my first sweltering summer here, I was on Lafayette Street in Greenwich Village, where a stocky, bare-chested man with a can of Bud and a cigarette in one hand and a pipe-wrench in the other stood by a gushing hydrant. “Why are you wasting all this water?” I asked indignantly. “Because I want to,” he snarled. Welcome to New York.
Ever the Californian, I am still appalled, but I now think the better of openly challenging neighbors wielding wrenches. Instead, I call the city hot-line, and sooner or later some public employee will arrive to shut off the hydrant, fit it with a tamper-proof cap, and take the heat of hostility. That’s got to be the worst job in the world, and a futile one, too: A few minutes later, New York ingenuity successfully tampers with the tamper-proof cap, and the fun begins again.
In low-income areas like the South Bronx, where apartment air conditioning means one little window unit in the bedroom and one big electric bill at the end of the month, beating the heat becomes a community event. The spacious public parks are chockablock with people fully equipped for such occasions, lugging from their fourth-floor walk-ups barbecues, beach chairs, canopies, coolers, and recreation equipment. Dueling boom-boxes — rap and soul from one group, salsa and bachata from another, reggae from a third — all get along in a cacophonous melting-pot.
Also competing for the ear’s attention are the jingles of ice-cream trucks at streetside, one playing “The Entertainer,” another “Turkey in the Straw,” yet another the cloying Mister Softee theme. Many New Yorkers count the Mister Softee ditty as noise pollution because for some reason it keeps playing in their heads long after the truck has gone. In 2005, the City Council passed an ordinance permitting operators to play their jingles only when the truck is in motion — a measure that, like the hydrant law, is just laughed off.
Watching New Yorkers cope with oppressive heat is watching a wonderful cultural phenomenon — and the next opportunity arrives on Friday. Neighbors, get out your wrenches!


July 20, 2011

The lone Democrat in the New York State Senate to vote against the Marriage Equality Act on June 24 is from the South Bronx. Ruben Diaz, Sr. — Pentecostal minister, hot-headed demagogue, one of those colorful characters once common in New York politics, and in the still-common dynastic tradition, father of the current Bronx Borough President — took his parting shot during the floor debate before the vote: “God, not Albany, has settled the definition of marriage a long time ago.”
There were surely other legislators who secretly agreed with his premise, if not his rhetoric, and yet finally voted the other way, persuaded by the powerful gay-rights lobby, promises of political pull by the popular governor Andrew Cuomo, and the emotional pull of homosexual family members and friends. Brooklyn Democratic Senator Carl Kruger, for example, was ostracized by the gay nephew of his girlfriend for voting against a similar same-sex marriage bill two years ago. According to the New York Times, his colleague, Democratic Majority Leader John Sampson, told him, “When everything else is gone, all you have left is family.” This time he voted yes.
“I don’t need this,” Kruger told him. “It has gotten personal now.”
Personal indeed, and it goes right to the top. President Obama, long an advocate of civil unions and a critic of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal benefits to same-sex couples, continues to hold the belief that the word “marriage” means a man-woman union. He now says that his views are “evolving,” though he refuses to explain how and why.
I think I can understand his dilemma; it is a conflict between the public and the personal. Like the president, I support the complete equality afforded by measures such as California’s domestic partnership law, and yet, presumably like the president, I personally believe that marriage connotes a heterosexual union. What I don’t support is what amounts to an official endorsement of any particular life-style, either opposite-sex or same-sex, the public approbation of an essentially private activity.
That’s why I’m in favor of disestablishing marriage, just as the First Amendment disestablished religion. A pioneering state like California could replace civil marriage with a universal domestic partnership contract open to any two consenting adults without regard to gender and without the implication of sexual relations. The question of what marriage is and who may participate in it would thus be left to individuals, religious bodies, and other social groups. The state’s only concerns would be the witnessing and disposition of the contract and the protection and encouragement of stable family relationships, however they are configured, through the rights and benefits secured by the contract.
Over the last fifty years, government’s involvement — intrusion, really — in the realm of personal relationships have steadily waned. As courts identified and refined the right to privacy, laws prohibiting all manner of consensual sexual relations both within and outside of marriage were struck down, the adverse legal consequences of out-of-wedlock birth were eliminated, the exemption for spousal rape was removed, and non-consummation as grounds for nullity was obviated by no-fault divorce.
Changing social mores have compelled states to accord varying degrees of legal status to forms of family configurations other than marriage. Depending on the jurisdiction, unmarried parents are now held to the same responsibilities of child support as married couples, adoption has been extended to single people and same-sex couples, and privileges similar or identical to those formerly reserved to the married are given to cohabiting widowed persons over age 62 (to preserve survivorship benefits), and even blood-relatives.
Today, the preferential legal status of marriage, however the term is construed, is de facto being done away with by modern family law; marriage now is widely treated as one form of protectable family relationship among others. So why not take the next step?
A state like California could easily become marriage-neutral by abolishing its marriage statutes and folding heterosexual unions into its existing domestic partnership law.
The advantages to this approach are many. First, it would make clear by terminology that government’s fundamental interest lies not in the presumed sexual activity of the partners but in nurturing and strengthening stable personal and family relationships. Second, it would obviate the valid argument made by gay-marriage advocates that equal but separate marriage and “civil union” laws create implicit class distinctions. Third, it would terminate government’s entanglement in the problems of definition. Finally, these contracts could also be opened to a wider range of committed couples, such as two celibate friends or unmarried siblings who share their lives and property and deserve the privileges of any married couple, gay or straight, but who would never want to be considered “married.”
In 1765 — simpler times, indeed — the English legal scholar William Blackstone wrote: “Our law considers marriage in no other light than as a civil contract. The holiness of the matrimonial state is left entirely to ecclesiastical law.”
In a closed-door meeting before the New York Senate vote, Governor Cuomo reportedly convinced wavering key Republicans with the exhortation, “Their love is worth the same as your love.”
Diaz based his argument on God; Cuomo, on love. I side with Blackstone. Neither legislatures nor courts should meddle in those holy realms.


June 21, 2011

It was a month of milestones for the Catholics of the South Bronx. On May 28, Rev. Thomas Fenlon, pastor of St. Augustine Church, celebrated 50 years as a priest. On June 3, Our Lady of Victory Church celebrated 100 years as a parish. On June 18, St. Augustine School graduated its 150th annual class. Happy occasions, each tinged with sadness and uncertainty.
Father Fenlon held his anniversary Mass in the historic Immaculate Conception chapel at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, on the Hudson River in the upscale Riverdale section of the Bronx. Over 800 people attended, including 150 relatives converging from all parts of the nation and the world. He rented buses to bring parishioners from churches where he’d served, in the Bronx, Harlem, and upstate Newburgh. After the two-hour ceremony, animated by St. Augustine School’s African dance troupe and the church’s Gospel Choir, he threw an outdoor catered reception with an ethnic balance of Latin and soul food, good wines and kegs of beer, stations serving ice cream and Italian ices, and even face-painting for the kids. The DJ played both bachatas and the Electric Slide. All this cost him plenty, but he spent gladly and lavishly, not for himself but for the people he loved through half a century of ministry among the poor.
He would have preferred to celebrate in his parish church, but the once-magnificent 115-year-old structure was shut two years ago as unsafe. The 300-member congregation now worships in the school auditorium, a contraction that may foreshadow its dissolution in the New York Archdiocese’s next round of parish closings coming up next year. Founded in 1849, when the area was mostly farmland, St. Augustine’s served the South Bronx through urban growth and urban decay; it may not be there to serve the new waves of immigrants coming to occupy the thousands of housing units going up just blocks away.
A sesquicentennial should be cause for rejoicing, but the graduation ceremony at St. Augustine School was cause for tears — the 150th class was also its last.
In the heyday of Catholic education throughout in the first half of the last century, up to a thousand students, first through eighth grades, packed the classrooms each year, drawing from the Irish, German, and Italian families that then characterized the neighborhood. As the demographics changed to largely non-Catholic African-Americans, the mission of the school broadened to serve not just Catholics but the whole community, a refuge of quality and discipline amidst the corruption and chaos of the public school system.
In a sense, the school was a victim of its own success. When charter schools, publicly financed yet independently run, began opening in the South Bronx a decade ago (many explicitly owing their educational philosophy of academic rigor, classroom order, and even uniforms, to the Catholic model — everything except the religion and the tuition) enrollment at St. Augustine’s began to erode; this year there were barely 200 students. Rather than committing to maintain the Catholic presence in the neighborhood through active recruitment and a sliding-scale tuition policy, the archdiocese evacuated.
In a last touch of irony, a charter school down the hill, with a surfeit of students and a dearth of space, will rent the building as a second campus.
The ceremony for the final 12 graduates was somber but inflected with that most absurd of the theological virtues, hope. “God has something in mind,” principal Cathryn Trapp told the disheartened handful of parents and parishioners in attendance. “God is working. We may have nothing, and yet we have it all.”
The centenary dinner for Our Lady of Victory, a parish less than a mile northwest of St. Augustine’s, was also bittersweet. Beneath the accolades and the merengue music was everybody’s realization that one hundred years marked only memory, not expectation. Like St. Augustine’s, this parish, with its charming little church on Webster Avenue that saw the transformation of its neighborhood from clusters of row houses and modest apartment buildings to massive public housing projects, became a satellite of a larger parish two years ago — a portent of impending demise.
When the South Bronx was at its worst, amidst the fires and the drugs and the violence that made it a worldwide symbol of urban desolation, the Catholic Church stood firm. Young priests, filled with the spirit of the civil rights movement and the Second Vatican Council’s liberating call for justice for the poor, spent their lives here, tirelessly preaching the Good News of human dignity and organizing the community at large to address issues of discrimination, housing, hunger, addiction, and guns. Catholic schools sheltered children from the streets and prepared them for good colleges and good careers. During that time, the archdiocese channeled contributions from its wealthy parishes into the Church’s ministry to the inner city.
Now these priests, after 50 years or more of service, are leaving the scene, with few to replace them. The financial lifeline once thrown to impoverished parishes and schools by the archdiocese is being hauled in, citing “fiscal prudence.” Milestones are now millstones. Just as the Bronx is springing back, the institution of the Catholic Church is beating a retreat.
But the remnant remains at work, braced by that absurd theological virtue of hope.


June 14, 2011

I met Anthony Weiner once. Well, I sort of met him. In 2005, when he was battling the Bronx’s native son, Fernando Ferrer, for the Democratic mayoral nomination, the Brooklyn/Queens Congressman made a brief foray into enemy territory to appear at a rally staged by South Bronx Churches, the local community-organizing arm of the Industrial Areas Foundation. He came in late and left early. Standard IAF practice is to allow politicians exactly three minutes to speak. Just as he was cranking up, a little Puerto Rican woman approached and tapped him on the shoulder: “Your time’s up,” she whispered. “I’m not used to shutting up so soon,” he laughed, and the crowd laughed with him. The IAF knew the value of Twittering long before Twitter existed. Weiner would later become adapt — or inept — with the Tweet.
He was then subjected to the standard IAF practice of demanding yes-or-no answers to the questions on their agenda: Do you support our proposals on education reform? housing for the homeless? gun control? Like almost everybody I’ve seen in this hot-seat, Weiner started off with, “I’ll answer your question, but first I’d like to say ...” — whereupon the leader would interrupt: “Just answer the question, Congressman: yes or no?”
At first baffled by the whole process, he learned quickly. He answered yes to everything, then excused himself: “I hate to go, but I’ve got another meeting in Brooklyn. You’re doing a great service to the community.” Exiting by a side aisle, he paused only to shake hands with people along the way, and grabbed mine for a New York second. So I sort of I met Anthony Weiner.
As far as I know, the Bronx never saw him again. Ferrer won the primary and Weiner went back to his job, and his other activities, in Washington.
The IAF likes to put politicians in their place as the servants, public servants, they ought to be — it’s good for them to experience a little embarrassment once in a while. Unlike many bigwigs that I’ve seen at these meetings, flush-faced and seething at the constrictions imposed on them, Weiner seemed to take it all in good humor, aware of the irony and also aware of the power of these usually powerless people to make or break him at the polling booth. I respected him for that.
While I never became a Friend or even a Follower of Weiner, I found his talk-show appearances refreshing — a guy with Brooklyn brashness who’d gleefully bash big oil, big ag, big tobacco, big everything except big government — an unapologetic liberal who dogged the right at every turn. He was often outlandish — I guess we should have suspected something right there — but some of his pranks bordered on genius. In 2009, in the midst of the health-care frenzy, he simultaneously introduced two bills, one to abolish Medicare and the other to extend Medicare to everyone. It was an unforgettable stroke of legislative irony; he designed those bills not for passage but to expose the absurd contradiction of supporting a single payer for the elderly and opposing it for the rest.
When the news broke last week of Weiner’s Twittering trysts, my first thought was: “Uh-oh, he’s a goner. Now all we have left is Dennis Kucinich.”
Thus far, Weiner has resisted the pressure from most of his party, including President Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, to resign. After the customary rehab and the less-than-customary self-flagellation, he could hold on to his seat, hang low, so to speak, continue to cast votes toward the liberal cause, and let his term mercifully expire.
In any case, whether he quits or stays, he’s finished in politics. People will forgive adulterers — look at Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, though the fate of the latter remains to be seen — and they’ll sometimes even forgive paid sex — look at Eliot Spitzer, disgraced governor turned CNN commentator — but they’ll never forgive a pornophile, especially when the porn is of himself. A twit on a Tweet. That’s about as creepy as it gets.
But who knows? Weiner and Jon Stewart were college buddies. What a sidekick that guy would make!
I can see it now ...