So I'm sitting with Ted over late breakfast at Tom's Coney Cafe on Dort Highway, dreading New York. I'm eating a turkey and swiss croissant and drinking a decent cup of coffee and reading, ironically, the New York Times -- one of our daily treats from (she lowers voice to a whisper) the corner Starbucks. There's an article about how Lou Dobbs doesn't tell the truth -- particularly when it comes to leprosy in the U.S. Apparently he said there were 7,000 cases in the last three years -- mostly perpetrated by those pesky immigrants -- when really, it was 7,000 cases over the last THIRTY years. Confronted with his statistical creativity by David Leonhardt of the Times, along with suggestions Dobbs has been offering broadcast exposure to white supremacists, Dobbs replied, "You've raised this to a level that frankly I find offensive." Funny how raising the level of something can be offensive.
A big glamorous black woman comes in and Ted says, "Is that LaKisha?" We're on the lookout since she rolled into Bishop Airport Sunday night. Don't know if she favors these Dort Highway dives, but we're at home here. A roly-poly guy in the booth next to us orders a "Jy-Roe" and the waitress impatiently corrects, "HEE-Row." I can almost hear her say, "HEE-row, dumbell." "Okay, HEE-row," he tolerantly repeats, "Whatever, gimme one." I like a place like that. Two guys in Harley teeshirts amble in and order platters of two coneys each, even though it's barely past breakfast. I think the slim young woman in a nearby booth, chain smoking and rather wearily done up in a wide metal belt, short skirt and tight top, might have come off the circuit further down the road. We're all in this together.
So anyway, even though I'm enjoying my New York Times amid the comforting dishevelment of my Flint brothers and sisters, I'm dreading the actual city of New York. Friday morning Ted and I are jumping a jet to Newark airport, plopping down in our overpriced room at the Roosevelt Hotel, and enduring three days at Book Expo America.
I'll be one of 30,000 authors, publishers, agents, booksellers, scam artists and hangers-on competing for space in the aisles of the Jacob Javits Convention Center. The number of booths are in the thousands. Among other rules, they say bookbags on wheels are forbidden, for some reason.
It's a trade show, the business end of the deal -- and I've decided it is time I abandon my fantasy life of grassy, nurturing artist colonies and rambling ruminations on line breaks and symbolic intent for the bottom line.
My book will be displayed a couple of places, a single dandelion in an overpopulation of weeds (weeds are wildflowers by another name, right?) and I'm supposed to find out if I win, show or place in the ForeWord Magazine Literary Novel of the Year Award (for the record, there are something like 40 rubrics and 650 finalists...only ten, however, in my category). I don't think I'll win: a fancy-schmancy Solzhinetsyn collected and a reissue of a novel with a new foreward by Wole Soyinka are the front-runners, I predict. ForeWord has found a brilliant way to cater to all us independently published authors desperate for exposure; yes, I bought the gold-embossed "Finalist" sticker for my book. Fifty-five dollars, if you must know.
Then I'm recording a podcast at the iUniverse booth: five minutes, five questions. Then Ted and I are going to try to snag autographs from the likes of Wilbur Smith and Alan Alda. I'm going to fight for a front-row seat at an interview with Christopher Hitchens and have breakfast on Sunday with Ian McEwen and a couple of hundred of his other best friends.
It's just that I'll feel so...small.
Just one little Flintoid with half a foot in LA, treading into Gotham City with all the rest of those rabid writer/aspirants. Oh, the horror.
One of my students said she was walking around the UMF campus recently when suddenly an adult bird dropped out of a tree and landed on the sidewalk in front of her, dead. She's not particularly a birder or environmentalist, but it freaked her out and she didn't stick around to try to figure out what might have happened. She said she thought it was a crow. She rushed away and left it there.
I thought of that incident last night when I opened my Flint Journal. I swear, in the melancholy department it's not safe to open the newspaper anymore. The first page headline cried out "Dying Birds" and said the West Nile Virus is decimating bird populations in the U.S. -- particularly American crows, but also robins, chickadees, bluebirds, blue jays, house wrens, and tufted titmice.
Damn it, the tufted titmouse? I love that bird -- not just its hilarious name, but its perky little topknot and the way the cheery birds sweep onto the back yard feeder in small bouncy cadres, dropping down from the neighbor's cherry tree one by one to grab a seed.
Should we be getting ready to lose everything we love? I'm thinking of Elizabeth Bishop's gut-wrenching villanelle, "One Art": "The art of losing isn't hard to master," and wondering if I have the intestinal fortitude for what sometimes feels like a looming environmental collapse. I remember that no matter what people say about the underlying acceptance in Bishop's poem, written after the suicide of her longtime lover Lota, the last word, undeniably, irrevocably, is "disaster":
"...the art of losing's not too hard to master though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster."
I don't want to lose the tufted titmouse. Is it too late?
I know what I was thinking: nobody'd show up at a high school in the north end of Flint to hear a talk by two college English teachers. Especially, I thought, not at 7:22 a.m., when the first class was supposed to start. My colleague Janelle Wiess and I were there because of Jeanette Rousseau, a UMF alum who's been teaching English at Northern High School for about six years. After agreeing to the visit, I spent a week dreading it. I've heard repeatedly that the Flint schools are disastrous, chaotic, peopled by unruly kids -- the Flint Journal recently ran a story saying some schools don't even have enough money for toilet paper, and teachers and parents were bringing it in.
I set my alarm for 5:30 a.m. and on a rainy morning, drove down bumpy Mackin Road and into Flint Northern's long driveway. There I was startled to encounter a virtual traffic jam of buses, cars and kids pouring into the beige Seventies facility. As Jeanette directed, I went around to the "flag pole" side, the student entrance, where a crowd of dozens of kids, regular kids in jeans and backpacks, moved patiently through the metal detectors. It was 7:05 a.m. when I made my own way in and found the office. I had a few minutes to relax before reporting for the first class. The place hummed with secretaries getting organized, phones ringing, students dropping in, teachers checking in -- obviously at full tilt. The classes went great -- the students respectful, alert and asking sharp, cogent questions. At least half said they want to go to college. Attendance policies, plagiarism, how to get help from professors, all relevant concerns, emerged, in a room festooned with assignment directions for "oxymoron" and cinquain poems, tips for MLA Style, and bumper stickers like "Hate is not a family value" and "If you stop to think, don't forget to start up again."
What struck me most, simply, was the obvious energy for school. Despite all the recent district-wide brouhahas and brutal funding cuts, somehow, the community is still getting schools to happen. Maybe my expectations were low, but it amazed me that the students were there -- somebody got them there -- at 7:22 in the morning, in big numbers, at an hour when I'm usually just rolling over in my brass bed and clicking on Morning Edition. It touched me. And then that they have to go through metal detectors, one by one, examined by security guards. And that they might not have toilet paper (they later assured me they did, at least at their school). I wish school was unambiguously safe -- I wish they didn't have to have metal detectors, but they didn't seem to object, waiting their turn. It seems sad -- students could be forgiven for beginning to believe that we don't care about them, that education, based on our fiscal betrayal and their crowded and crumbling schools, doesn't really matter all that much. But this morning I felt a glimmer of hope. I hope against hope they can't wait to get to school -- I hope once they get through all the obstacles, what happens in those wide institutional hallways and bustling classrooms makes them believe their minds are the best thing they've got, on a rainy morning in the middle of May.
What a week in Flint, Michigan. In San Pedro, my second home, we're never surprised by movie-makers putting up detour signs, taking over Pt. Fermin Park -- sometimes for weeks at a time -- or setting off explosions at midnight at the harbor. In Flint, though, it's something exceptionally rare.
So the town was feverish and hysterical this week when Will Ferrell and Woody Harrelson, along with trucks, vintage cars, light set ups and dozens of crew rolled in to film scenes for "Semi-Pro" featuring the 70s fictional basketball team, the Flint Tropics. The scenes they filmed in Flint involved transforming streets into winter, so crews from a company named "Snow Business" piled supposedly biodegradable fluff on several city blocks. And they stripped the leaves and buds off trees along First Street, trees which didn't seem to know that Hollywood trumps Mother Nature, especially in a cash-strapped town. They claim they'll replace those trees, but it's galling.
And the other day some of the leftover "snow" caught fire. Ironic twist on the Hollywood week. Snow smoking around the stripped locust branches. Ah, yes, things are going great in Vehicle City.
In the midst of the "Semi-Pro" hoopla, Bob Woodward showed up, part of UM - Flint's Spotlight series, to sell books, talk to high school students, and deliver a noon talk to a couple of hundred grown ups. I bought a copy of State of Denial and got it signed by the man himself -- who despite his recent wiliness and self-promoting actions confusing truth with fortune, remains a journalistic hero of mine. I was a young reporter at the Orange Coast Daily Pilot during Watergate, and every day in '73 and '74 was more exciting than the last. We idolized those boys -- and believed in the power of the word, of relentless research and fearlessness, to bring down evil. What's happened since? Even Woodward sits a bit too comfortably in corporate laps and the Washington press corps have the spine of eels. Still, it was stimulating to see Woodward in person and hear him talk about how he interviewed Bush for three and a half hours over two days. Stunningly, he claimed to have asked him 500 questions. It seems our president isn't a guy to go beyond the one-word response. Truth, ah, elusive truth slinks off, neglected, into the darkness.
Finally, Lakisha. She got her "American Idol" mojo back last week and squeaked through to the final four. Flint celebrates her with so much obsession it's...dare I say it?... embarrassing. Better, though, to rest in the talents of a powerful gospel shouter than corrupt politicians and industrial decay.