Wow this talk will feel like I am chatting with a dear friend that I have not seen in years! I guess the way we work with aaduna contributors exposes our passion, which either creates solid colleagueships and often friendships, or it is a devastating wipe out (only one or two times in 5 years to be honest.) You and I shared a lot over the past few weeks as we structured “Rashad…” for publication, and I am going to try not to use that information to frame our discussion. With that said, because of the ambiance and nuances associated with living in California and particularly a place like San Francisco, it begs basic questions…how did you get there and how has that particular city shaped your view of life? Do you have a uniquely San Fran experience that you can share?
Hi Bill. Thanks for inviting me into this conversation. In response to your first question: I got to San Francisco because I arrived at one of those natural moments of transition that happen in life, I had always wanted to live in San Francisco and so I came here—not a very interesting story. I have not been here long and have spent most of my time laying around with a broken ankle, I can’t yet speak to how this city will impact my view of life. I can say that the city has great ADA compliance, which helps if you are on crutches, but also great hills, which provide breathtaking views and a serious upper-body work out if you are on crutches. Something uniquely San Francisco?
There is all the stuff that people usually talk about, rainbow crosswalks in the Castro and the bridges and City Lights and cable cars and such. I think what the guide books don’t talk about are the tensions that exist in the city. On the block where I work there is a plaza where a three-piece jazz band plays at lunch time. In this plaza you can buy six-dollar cups of coffee and lunch from fusion-food food trucks. Twenty-four year olds who work for tech companies and make $300,000 a year buy the coffee and the food, but usually the only people listening to the jazz band are homeless and I’ve seen sex-trade workers leaning on the food trucks. In the lower floors of my office building there are young people trying to figure out the best way to use your information to sell you things. The sign on the building next door says “We Buy Gold Teeth.” It’s a very strange tension. I’ve never been in a place in the US where the very wealthy and the very poor share space like this. The transition feels like whiplash. Yet so many people want to come live in this tiny city. I’m one of them. The other night I had a taxi driver (ok, I admit, it was Lyft) who was very new to the city. He kept slowing down to look at the stunning panoramas and the Victorian houses. At first I was annoyed, but then I remembered that the city, both the natural environment and the built one, is breathtaking and deserves wonder. So here I am.
I hope you get back to your center of well-being even as it appears that the ankle and crutches are not stopping you from moving about. As I think about it, there is a human relationship dynamic in your current city that does challenge the social-economic and probably political landscape, as well as an established cultural milieu, and may be a glimpse of where the rest of the country may eventually go. I guess we no longer call it simply gentrification. I know working class neighborhoods in Brooklyn are experiencing a similar uneasiness as small shops that catered to “ordinary” folk, are being replaced by upscale, high-end luxury stores because landlords and developers see enchanting unexpected, financial opportunities. These new neighborhood stores cater to a certain economic class and the old neighborhood residents are beginning to feel that they can’t afford to live in their neighborhood. The place you went to San Francisco from, where was that and what was living there like? And does your residential environment seep into your writing as far as themes or style of writing.
Sure. I feel this may be an extreme example of the shrinking middle class, of what city culture might mean. And yes, my residential environment seeps into my writing. I’m not usually conscious of the infiltration until I step back and, woops, there it is. Speaking of mirroring the rest of the US, I came to San Francisco from Las Vegas, where I did my MFA. I got to Vegas just as the recession hit full swing. The collapse hit the city very, very hard. It’s fascinating to watch these extremes and impossible to not want to explore more about the humans who live these extremes.
I wonder if you just shared the theme for a pending excursion into writing a novel? You are very socially conscious and sensitive to human frailties. Where does that come from and was there any specific situation that made you step back and realize that the human condition was something that was central to your development?
I like that thought about the novel. It’s a good rumor to start.
I don’t think that I can point to a moment when I became more socially conscious or aware of human frailties. Much to my chagrin, I’ve never been one for epiphany—it’s not my flavor of transcendence. Can I ask, though, you also strike me a socially conscious and very aware of the many hardships being human can present. Do you have specific situations that were central to the development of your own realizations around the human condition?
Nice shift from you to me, done with subtlety and grace. You opened a box that I tend to keep close. Here are responses from the top of my head in no particular order.
Growing up in the racially mixed projects in the South Bronx, NY and not knowing you and your friends were poor until high school….having best friends who were Irish, German, Spanish, Negro and mixed while in elementary school; collecting comic books and marbles and going to N.Y. Yankees home games on Saturdays after getting autographs from players as they arrived at the original Yankee stadium; roller skating and bowling in neighborhoods that had those amenities because those outlets never existed in my ‘hood;’ being a small hand full of students of color in a college prep high school where hair did matter (i.e. “Hey Berry, what’s that you combing? That’s not hair…ha ha”,) and never seeing a black teacher until my junior year in college. At the same high school where a teacher (Catholic priest) made a racist remark regarding Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. directly to me that prompted me to respond after class in harsh, direct, and threatening terms. The matter ended there with an apology from Father what’s his name. Volunteering to work with seriously disabled adults in high school; having a lifetime of being in the majority world and understanding the majority could never have roles reversed and succeed if the shoe was on the other foot. Drinking from a “Negroes Only” water fountain and sitting in the balcony of a movie theater in Tampa, Florida and not thinking much of it; being physically pushed back (landed on my butt in church!) down the aisle when I unknowingly tried to go to communion with the other (white) Catholics on that same Tampa trip. Not going to an Ivy League university because the faculty member/admissions officer convinced me that I would NOT fit in with the “better” students…and silly me believing that bullshit back then.
I am a child of the Dr. King, Malcolm X, and Kennedy assassinations, Vietnam, Woodstock, hippies, birth of Rock, Haight-Ashbury, Black Panthers, civil rights marches, SNCC, campus protests and student takeovers; creation of the first Black Studies department on my campus; student of the Black Power/feminist/gay and lesbian movements; Stonewall, transitioning from Negro to Black to human to Afro-American to African American to person of color to…, cultural diversity and ethnic understanding, etc. etc. etc. Interning while in graduate school in the theater department of a multi-cultural fine arts school that had a strong foundation and Mission in Afro-American expressions where I learned first-hand the power that art, culture and creative exchanges can have in transforming lives; applying for and being rejected for conscious objector status by a draft board who did not look like me in any way or reflected my consciousness; volunteering to create a platform to bring jazz and poetry to those who understood and those who did not.
Traveling throughout the world [and the southern USA to see where deep racial hatred was born and how those communities transformed to something else] and witnessing that race, culture, politics and economics are vital (and often positive) aspects as to who you are as a person and how those descriptors build or destroy your character as a man. woman, person, human. Realizing that compromise enables everyone to be a winner; being the first black in the administrative positions I held in my career in higher education. Not appreciating attempts by college administrators to keep students from active and direct involvement in the administration of their college campus while still a college student; having female supervisors for significant parts of my professional life; learning that listening is more powerful than talking .…enough said because the experiences and list can keep on going!
So, we now transition back to you where I will keep you focused, simply on you! What do you do or have been doing career wise while in San Francisco? And do any of those experiences influence your creative aspirations as a writer? And since we are going to delve into your creative thinking, where did basis of the story “Rashad Sees the Future” come from?
Thank you for sharing. That is quite a list of occurrences. I very much appreciate you opening the box that tends to stay closed, though, I must say, after reading that Cliff’s Notes summary of years of experience, experience that clearly has been and is being critiqued and considered, it is hard to not ask you more about the things you have written. Not that I would ask, but, for example, The Yankees? How did they influence your social consciousness? Or, for example, do you feel that, as a country, our sense of time, history and “progress” deceives us, that, too often, we think of things such as segregation as part of a more distant past? If so, do you feel the need to remind people of your own stories or do you feel that there are more effective ways of maintaining a sense of perspective? But, of course, those are questions for another time and I would not ask (nor would I add a smiley-faced emoticon here.)
In response you your questions, I’m working on a collection and a couple of shorter, chapbook-length projects right now. And of course a novel about the extremeness of San Francisco and Las Vegas. “Rashad Sees the Future” came out of a cab ride (talking with taxi drivers is one of my favorite things to do) and an ongoing interest in immigrant experience. And a deadline.
Back in the day, Elston Howard was the catcher for the Yankees and [if my memory is correct] the only Negro on the team. To understand the significance of that for a young Negro male steeped in the overwhelming mores of a majority white society is its own statement on social consciousness, no different than seeing a black person on TV in those days and the attention that got from black folk. Revolutionary. As far as the current state of the country, pay attention to the uncivil way the current President of the U.S. is treated and the ongoing dilemmas facing other “out” groups in post-racial America. And for one interested in chatting with cab drivers and the immigrant experience, how do you see the current climate and debate over issues surrounding immigration, voting rights and what it means to be an American? And please, share your ethnic/cultural lineage.
Ah. That makes a lot of sense. I don’t know my baseball, or integration history well enough to know what black (or white or Dominican or Korean) players found themselves on what rosters when. I’ll have to look into Elston Howard. Catcher is a powerful position. Did he have the weight of a people on his shoulders or was he just there to play ball? It is gracious of you to answer my very un-veiled question, thank you.
The current climate and debate over issues surrounding immigration, voting rights and what it means to be American? Whew. That’s a few novels right there, no? I guess I can start with my ethnic lineage and some very broad strokes on my cultural lineage.
I’m mostly German-American with some English thrown in. On my Mom’s side, one of my great-great grandmothers lived in the US for much of her life but spoke only German and my great grandfather’s birth announcement is in German. My father’s family came a bit more recently but all my direct ancestors settled in before World War II, which means that I come of a people that shed their culture, Americanized themselves, and quietly blended (we could talk a lot here about the difference between the mid-Western German and West Coast Japanese experience.) We have a photo, a portrait, of my great-great-great grandfather (of English descent) and his Cherokee bride on their wedding day. Of course, when that came to light my siblings and I were stereotypically thrilled with the idea of being part American-Indian (something to take the edge of the white guilt, I suppose) but, to our chagrin, it seems that our great-great-great grandfather had a first wife who bore him a son and then passed away. We have been told repeatedly that we descend from that that European-American woman and now it is up to us to make the story of our ancestry. Is what we have been told true? Is it just a tale handed down by our deceased racist ancestors, may they rest in peace? Does it matter? Is the negation or inclusion of that woman more honest, more true, in the understanding of my body as a sum total, a artifact, of my heritage? I think it is Sherman Alexi who says that all white people claiming some indigenous blood claim the Cherokee. I am even more desperate than the average. I claim a Cherokee step-ancestor. Mostly, I claim a photo. Regardless of the possibility of little bit of Indian blood that might run in my veins, I come of dirt farmers who, eventually, made their way to the city. I come of people who, poor in one country, made the difficult and shocking and, I can only hope, self-determined and giddily optimistic choice to leave home forever in exchange for a new country. I know that, like many Americans, I come of a people that were called “swarthy,” “ignorant,” a threat to the government, and “unable to adopt our language or our customs any more than they can acquire our completion” (those are, of course, some of the things that Benjamin Franklin famously said about German immigrants) by people already living in the United States. And, like many Americans, I come of a people who, once they had been here a while, called newcomers swarthy and ignorant and, I am sure, a whole lot of much worse words.
In brief, I think the current debates over immigration and voting rights (I am curious about why you asked about voting rights, amongst the many issues of justice connected with immigration) are short-sighted, rarely get very far upstream into global and historical causes or impact, and hinge on fear-mongering. But I’m glad we are still having debate. I can’t imagine that we will ever have a conclusive definition of what it means to be an American, which seems very healthy to me, but catch-phrases, while convenient and comforting, seem to muddy the waters more than clarify anything. Language is, of course, mutable and fallible.
I like the intrigue and nuances of your family lineage and history. In fact, I remain amazed by the similarities that exist in cultural history from one ethnicity to the next and the commonality of experience in America. I also wonder what would have been if Africans were not brought here by force but by a determined choice. Anyway, as far as voting…as the demographics of the country’s population changes and the possible ease of immigration leads to citizenship….?! However, I was really wondering about the recent attempts to make voting harder for Americans (i.e. photo IDs as one example.) So, did you watch the Super Bowl and if so what was your impressions about the overall event, and if not, what did you do on that Sunday?
Yes, well, I suppose in the end most human experience, or response to experience, is pretty similar. I imagine, though, that race relations have been and would be different if Africans had not arrived by force. This accepted dehumanization did not happen far long ago, really. I’ve never asked her if she did, but, for example, when my grandmother was a girl she could have known people born into slavery. That blows my mind.
And no, I didn’t watch the game. I’m going to sound terribly snooty and boring, but I was at an art museum for part of the game and then I had lots of work to do so I stayed home. What I should have done was gone grocery shopping. A Sunday evening when the stores are empty? That never happens.
Well, I vote for the art museum for at least part of the game. Oh Kat, this has been a delightful chat and good things do come to an end. Before saying “goodbye,” I want to give you the opportunity to give some wisdom to our readership. So, what say you? (And then you get to play my “this or that” where you just randomly pick one thing over the other for no other reason then to just pick what first comes into your mind.)
Netflix just started streaming M.A.S.H. I watched a few episodes and thought of you talking about how impactful it was to an African-American on TV. Season 1 starts out with Spearchucker, a character in the movie and, I assume, the book, bunking with our other central characters. He is, among other things, a black man and an Army surgeon. Then he just sort of disappears. What happened there? But that’s not wisdom. Wisdom is a big word and it seems to have overwhelmed me with lofty aphorisms. How about this? I have found that the addition of a houseplant can make most places feel more like home; probably something to do with how the color of foliage triggers our hormones. Philodendrons are good survivors. Careful thought. They will kill a cat.
Spearchucker?! I wonder if you can get away with that today regardless of the medium or setting. Anyway, two Sphynx cats inhabit our home…no philodendrons! Well, I want to thank you for taking the time to chat with me and I hope you enjoyed the conversation. Okay, here you go…pick one thing over the other without thinking. And take real good care.
Thanks Bill. This has been fun. I really do recommend the house plant. It’s achievable. Do your cats every demand you answer riddles before they let you in the door?
Thanks, again, for the opportunity to chat. And here goes!
Bagel or Muffins? Bagel. I wish it could be muffin, but I’m susceptible to sugar crash.
Sneakers or Sandals? Sandals. Might be sneakers if they were called tennis shoes.
Sorbet or Gelato? Yes.
Mustache or Goatee? No. But that’s probably just my jealousy about how hard it would be for me to have either one talking.
Animation or Claymation? Sure.
Red Carpet or Hollywood Walk of Fame? Red Carpet. Better name. Concise and vague.
Poker or Bingo? Poker
Jack (with Beanstalk) or Jack (Horner with pie)? Beanstalk
Ulysses or Achilles? Achilles. Self-centered, I suppose. I don’t have a Ulysses in my body.
Night of the Living Dead or Nightmare on Elm Street? Oh no. I wish I could, but it’s not the kind of fear I enjoy.
(N.B. Ms. Kruse’s answers are in red.)
♦ ♦ ♦
When aaduna started, I did an interview process titled “E-Viewpoints” with contributors. The purpose was to construct a wider audience for aaduna writers and artists while providing our readership with a better understanding and glimpse of the individuals who penned the poetry, fiction, and non-fiction and created the diverse array of visual arts. For a variety of unplanned reasons, I took a hiatus from that initiative. But now, I am back with “Conversations.” The plan is to chat with current and previous contributors and delve into aspects of their background that you may find intriguing and uplifting. I hope you become a regular follower of this series of “Conversations” and continue to enjoy the work of the individual that I have a chat with. The intent is not to be “in your face” but enable you to savor the nuances, expectations, and challenges that aaduna contributors face as people, just like you and me. I think you will find “Conversations” interesting, maybe provocative, and enlightening. I hope so.