Saturday, August 30, 2003

The Wealth of Neighbors

I'm sure the smell of tomato plants in the summer is a very early memory. My grandparents Severini grew tomatoes in their garden in the back yard. I don't remember those tomatoes as well as the plants in the garden between our back yard and the house directly "above." (It was above because a series of hills making up at that time one long ascent pretty much ended at our back yard, and there were four more streets behind us on that plateau.) That garden belonged to the Petroys, one of which was a relative of my Severini grandfather. There were lots of Italians in our area, many of them from the same village or region of Italy, and lots of them related by blood and marriage. Where there are lots of Italians there are lots of tomato plants, and they became a standard for other people as well. That was our world: we ate chipped ham sandwiches, skyscraper cones and Klondike bars from Isaly's (before the rest of the planet knew about them), and we had gardens and tomatoes.

The Petroy's garden was huge. All of the Petroy's-Katie, Jimmy, and Uncle Frank-- lived a long time-I hear Katie is alive still, she must be 100 by now. But as they got older the garden got smaller, especially the rows of tomato plants. Of course, as I got older the garden also seemed smaller. I remember running through the rows when the plants were taller than I was, and being yelled at by Katie or Jimmy. That garden was a small neighborhood adventure.

We didn't have a garden, or at least not much of one. My mother wasn't the outdoor type I guess, and my father wasn't interested (besides, not Italian.) But about this time every year, baskets and boxes of tomatoes and peppers would begin appearing in the kitchen. Neighbors would sometimes bring them and visit with my mother, or just exchange a few words at the back door. If we weren't home, tomatoes and peppers appeared on our back porch. Later on I sometimes cooked up some for myself, tomatoes and peppers in olive oil.

I remember these gardens when I smell Margaret's tomato plants. I water them, and I pick the tomatoes. The little orange ones will tell you when it's time---they'll fall into your hand with just a touch, or a slight twist of the stem.

I also think about the tomatoes on the back porch when I read the latest tortured explanations of the selfish gene and Darwinist natural selection. I don't argue with evolution, I just don't think it's necessary or realistic to think of everything only in terms of competition, of the struggle to survive. It doesn't take much more than common sense to see that cooperation is also essential.

Sometimes they're related, I'll grant you that. Sharing your bounty of tomatoes, like sharing your deer meat when you've come home with a buck across your car hood, is a form of bragging, of boasting of your skill and luck. But the good feeling you get from sharing your good fortune is a good feeling you can get from sharing and cooperating in other ways, and that rush of lovely chemicals must be pretty much part of our standard equipment by now. It encourages you to share. It also encourages you to excel, so you’ll have something to share.

Some Native cultures associate wealth with sharing, to the point that when somebody gets too wealthy they hold a give-away and give it all away. It’s an anti-envy move as well, but then virtues and vices are invariably related.

One more thing about the Petroy's garden. It got bigger when Katie's daughter Lucy moved in next door, and the combined garden crossed their backyards. She had married Corky Cocheletti, and they had a son also called Corky. He was younger than me so I didn't play with him much, except that his father had some boxing equipment in the basement and we got interested in that for awhile. I did go with both Corky's to my first high school football game, a thrilling experience---under the lights, all the sounds, the band, the cheerleaders, hot dogs and so on. And football with real equipment not on TV or a mile away from you sitting high in some stadium.

Anyway, young Corky grew up to be a model, for awhile the top male model in America. There was at least one magazine in the 70s that had an article by me and a picture of him. He was also trying to be an actor (he had some movie parts, and shows up even now on commercials occasionally), and he dated Pam Dawber when she was the costar of Mork and Mindy. He brought her to the neighborhood one day. I wasn't there but I hear she really liked the garden.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Postscript to August

So I've finished the play and sent it off. What can I say about it? It is a thing now that more or less exists, called Dance of Souls. I know there's a reasonable structure there, dramatic movement, characters to play, some potentially moving moments and some (meant to be) funny bits. All in what is basically pretty high falutin dialogue. But how good it is, I have no idea.

What else? It started out as a dialogue between Jung and Wells, but some of the best lines came from a completely fictional character who arrived much later in the process. The serendipity and synchronicity of the early stages of writing it carried through to the end, or to the point where I had to abandon it and call it finished. I spent the better part of a week housesitting, taking care of a couple of cats while still close enough to visit my own every day, seeing no one and working on the play. The house where I sat has a large deck facing a hill and trees, with nothing on it but a white table and chairs. Such a table is where most of my play centers, and out there one day I worked out the ending by walking through it---or, actually, dancing it. (The deck was also a great place to lie down to watch the Perseids on the one clear night, though I saw only a couple of streaks. But even on the next semi-cloudy night, the moon and Mars were clear.)

What's bothering me now, as I wake up from this extended dreamtime and face the collapsing freelance market, etc. is that all my luck got used up in writing that play, with none left for the outside world of money and paid work. It's been my suspicion that this is my fate, but I suppose I will still be surprised if and when the hammer does definitively fall. Not looking forward to it, in the last of strawberry summer, and the August of one of my oldest connections, the smell of tomato plants. Maybe there’s salvation in September? Stay tuned…

Sunday, August 24, 2003

The March on Washington 1963

I was there. I went as part of the delegation of the Greensburg Diocese Catholic Interracial Council. The Council's membership was composed of two young priests, who also made the trip: Father John Conway and Father James Petonic. The rest of the delegation was: me. I was about to begin my senior year at Greensburg Central Catholic High School.

There were no "Negroes" at Central Catholic. I never saw a black face in any Catholic church where I grew up. I did in fact live next door to a black family, all of my conscious life until then. But I never really connected the Robinson family, and my boyhood playmate, to the Civil Rights struggle. He was just a friend (I went to his church once, and to a chicken dinner his church sponsored) and they were just neighbors, each of them individuals, more important in their categories of Parents or Sisters, or as one of the four of us who did stuff together, played out our dramas, played on the same baseball teams and pick-up football games. Although looking back on it, certain elements of racism were part of even those relationships.

For me, Civil Rights was about principle, justice and redeeming the American political system. I was educated in politics by the Kennedy administration. I believed the Kennedy rhetoric on race and I understood the politics: the march was a countervailing force, against the political power of white southern Democrats, who made up a major part of the Washington establishment and the party's electorate. I didn't feel I was disloyal to Kennedy, let alone America. And in fact, in contrast to antiwar demonstrations that followed, the march's leaders were received in the White House by the president.

It was a moral principle as well, which I believed was consistent with Catholicism, even if not with a lot of Catholics. So the nuns and the local church couldn't disapprove. They didn't do anything to support the march either.

I was partly in blissful ignorance of my environment, and partly defiant. I related to worlds I read or saw on TV and in the movies, the music that I listened to. Reality was the Kennedy administration, James Baldwin's impassioned prose, The Law and Mr. Jones, George C. Scott in East Side/ West Side, Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary, and Roberto Clemente in right field. J.D. Salinger was in there somewhere too: so it was your working class Catholic Holden Caulfield marching on Washington...

I credit my parents with allowing me to go. They were good about this sort of thing. They helped arrange things so I could visit relatives I didn't actually know for Kennedy's Inaugural. (I did the rest, and operated myself into position to shake the new President's hand, in church.) Later, when I was a freshman at Knox College, they gave permission for me to go with several older students to register voters in Mississippi. The older students and whatever organization it was---I don't remember---changed their mind about taking me with them, but I had been ready to go.

There was some idea that the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom might involve violence. Somehow I knew it wouldn't. The marchers weren't marching against anybody; the Kennedy administration may have been less helpful than Civil Rights leaders wanted, but basically they weren't the enemy. (In fact, when JFK made an impromptu television address announcing the voting rights act and his strong support for civil rights, he knew that it would mean the end of Democratic party dominance in the south, with political repercussions that are still being felt.) It was also supported by lots of labor unions, and unions were still a powerful political force, and still a liberalizing one.

So the only violence would come from those who opposed the march. It wouldn't come from the police; by now, the Kennedy administration knew to anticipate and plan for contingencies, so there would be order.

So there I was, on the train to Washington from Pittsburgh, with two priests. They were nice enough but I can't say I was comfortable. But the train was full of people going down to the march. I started walking through the cars, where people sat quietly and smiled tentatively if you caught their eye. Then I whoosed open one door, and everything changed.

It was an entire train car full of young people, all singing. Folk songs, spirituals, political songs I didn't yet know. There were guitars and hand-clapping. The car was packed. Some were even up in the luggage bays. That was one of the true spiritual experiences of my life.

If you've seen the footage they usually run, you've seen us getting off the trains. A lot of people came by train. We were amazed to see each other. I had never seen so many black people in one place before. And they seemed to be amazed to see any white people. There was such a feeling immediately from the train platform throughout the march. An intense peace. Wonder. Awe. Gratitude for each other. Love. It was an altered state of consciousness for sure.

The march itself was wonderful. I just remember the feel of it, the sound of it. The excitement and wonder as people began to realize how many of us there were. There had never been anything like this before, not in the whole history of the country. I seem to recall hearing that the organizers would have been happy with 50,000. Then we heard there were 100,000. Then two. Then three. I guess the number that has become official is 250,000. There was never a moment when violence was even a remote possibility.

Then we were at the reflecting pool for the speeches and the music. I was over to the left as you look away from the platform, about halfway, although I walked around a good deal. It was hot. Real hot. That's basically what I remember. I listened to the music, to the speeches. I thought Martin Luther King's speech was eloquent, but James Baldwin could have written a better one. The truth is I was waiting for Peter, Paul and Mary to sing "Blowin in the Wind." That was the emotional high point for me. The rest was heat and fatigue.

At some point I got some relief when the priest in charge led us to the congressional office of William Moorhead, the Democrat who represented Pittsburgh in the House. We got a chance to wash up and cool off. I don't remember anything about the trip back. I probably slept.

A few days after we got back, when I was still feeling inspired, I contacted the editor of the monthly newspaper of the diocese, the Catholic Accent. I offered to write something about my impressions of the march---I was already setting the pattern of my life by proposing a three-part series. He said one article would do.

I think it was my first publication outside of school papers, and maybe the letters to the editor column of the local daily. The article begins in an interesting way, considering how that day is now viewed. I quoted John Stuart Mill, I see, with dubious appropriateness, but the truth was I was actually reading Mill-something else I picked up from the Kennedy era. But you notice, there's no mention of the King sound bite. "I have a dream" wasn't yet the stuff of legend and TV commercials. So here it is, in full, direct from the scrapbook...

GCCH STUDENT gives his views on march
by Bill Kowinski
Senior, Central Catholic High School

The big shock came to us when we returned home. After all the hours of standing, walking, riding, and marching: after seeing huge masses of dedicated and self-sacrificing people; after hearing the songs and speeches crying for freedom, we were vastly surprised to hear the dispassionate estimates of our effectiveness. The consensus seemed to be that we did little, of any, real good.

Most of these opinions were in reference to civil rights legislation, but to the young people this was not the real issue. The legislation will inevitably come, and it is for future generations to make it work, and to promote the true social integration of the races.

Is this impossible? Had there not been a march, there would be grave doubts about the practicality of realizing this American ideal.

But today, after the march, there can be no doubt. When a mass of people roughly equivalent to the population of Syracuse, comprised of different backgrounds, religions, races, and coming from different regions, could converge on Washington with such dedicated and dignified fervor as to make thoughts of violence absurd, then hope for the future is supremely justified.

It all held special meaning to the young people. They had come from many places, and for many reasons. Perhaps their thoughts were best expr3essed by a favorite folk singing group who sang these lyrics from a popular song at the march:
"How many years can some people exist before they're allowed to be free?
How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn't see?"

From the singing on the Freedom Train, to the slow chant of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the young people brought spirit and compassion to a cause in which they deeply felt.

While all the banners for "Freedom Now!" will have to be satisfied by the present generation, the young people of today will also face a great task.

As John Stuart Mill wrote: "I refuse to congratulate a man or a generation on getting rid of prejudices until I see what is substituted in lieu of them."

Prejudice is based mainly on ignorance. It was evident to the marchers that once the races begin to live and work together, as we marched together, meaningful integration can be achieved. It will fall upon the shoulders of the young people of today to see it through.