A grocery store owner when I was boy. He was short. He had thick glasses, black hair still at his age, and a twenty year old daughter with absolutely glorious tits, or so I said. I used to go to him for ham sandwhiches, Boar’s Head with tomato and mayo on italian bread. He was Jewish. He had two slicers; one kosher, the other non. Occassionally he’d roll up the sleeves of the button down white shirt he always wore, with a tie. I’d see the numbers tatooed on his arm. I had no idea when I was ten what they meant. I never asked him though I was curious. A friend later told me; I don’t think he knew because he was concerned for history or for Jews. Jews were curiosities for many in my old neighborhood, still. This was another piece of trivia; the Germans tatooed them in the camps.
I don’t know what happened to Joe, the grocery store owner on the corner of Schenectady Avenue and Avenue D in East Flatbush Brooklyn, after we moved away. I’m not sure if he is still alive; his daughter was four or six years older than I was, maybe she was only eighteen the last time I saw her, a thick voluptuous mass of curly blonde hair tumbling to a green blouse that could not hide, although it did not accentuate, just how glorious her glands were. He might still be alive; she most likely is. I used to imagine many years ago telling a woman in some future that I had had a crush on her when I was a boy. Nonetheless, I don’t know if his wife was older or younger. I never saw anything on her arms; I don’t know if I ever saw her arms. He was closed on Saturdays, opened regular hours on Sunday. I don’t know what I could tell him, or even if I should tell him anything, if I were to see him again, if he is alive, probably not; I thought the other day about his grocery store.
I know I’ll forget this soon enough and perhaps remember it just as easily only to forget it again just as quickly once more. What could it have meant to me even if I were Jewish in Brooklyn, what I saw? How many Jews here were touched by the Holocaust; but I knew later that we were all supposed to be touched by it, but then we believed in a pan-humanity. We don’t today, in spite of what think, what we say, not as sub-divisive as our diversity has been allowed to become. Lip service, easy enough; lying to one’s self easier. If Jews believe that when a person saves another person he saves the world, how many worlds did the Nazis destroy, I could ask, but I don’t. Do any of us through omission help destroy worlds within worlds. Preaching is easy; practice always hard enough when done to make things perfect.
It has been more than sixty years since Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army. Everyone born in that year has entered or will enter, officially, bureaucratically, old age. The greatest horror of the Second World War, bureaucratic mass murder, has persisted, in the form of an over-arching world bureaucracy that insists we collectivize, thus diminish our humanity, each one of us his or her own singularity. The physics of stars is correlative with human nature; we do grow old and dense and collapse within ourselves before we die. No? Nothing escapes; everything that comes within our event horizon gets crushed. We do also seek the comfort of the herd, we do understand protection only in terms cows would comprehend if they could step out of their instincts and enter human thinking. I have witnessed reasonably intelligent people oppose former President Bush by marching en masse in Manhattan, marching slowly and chanting monosyllabically, as if not being beaten by the cops with truncheons and riot hats doesn’t play into the hands of the state. We flatter ourselves, we do; and it does. We compare ourselves to King or to Ghandi, as if anything were the same for us as it were for them; but I exaggerate, don’t I? Evoking King and Gandhi in our America is a proper and proportionate thing to do; historical perspective is beyond subjective.
America is home to one new solipsist after another, each from any corner of the world, as we are from all corners. I adhere to the existence of Truth, the big ‘T’ variety, even if I shy away from asserting it’s self evident, as easily as Jefferson had the fundamentals of our freedom; and our freedoms were truths he took to be self-evident. But then, Jefferson could declare the truths of the Declaration to be self-evident; there was space for that rhetoric to be received, but even if the space today is a lot narrower than it was in Jefferson’s 18th century, space for this rhetoric does exist nonetheless, and perhaps it will take a bit of tenacity by those of us who still cling to the notion of this as self-evident.
If one tenth of any marchers anywhere I had seen chanting monosyllabically against the war in Iraq had written an especially individualized and intelligent, even an articulate letter to his or her congressman–but do we write anymore? Can we? The most essential feature in the advancement of our civilization hasn’t the credibility it once had, and that comes from decades of teaching freeshman comp in our colleges here in New York, and I’m not referring to the students but to the professors in our English Departments. The once ago relevance in education movement had taken us away from writing at what we once called advanced literacy; advanced literacy had been declared elitist, and where it was not referred to as elitist, it was at least white and male and thereby an obstacle to racial and gender equality and democratic rule everywhere. No War, Peace Now, Send the Troops Home . . . a thousand times circumnavigating Union Square Park one Saturday afternoon, as the great unwashed chanted; this great unwashed was what reactionary conservatives from the seventies used to call protesters, but therein that day it was true–a motley, grimy, dusty, even dirty mass of protesters they were. My humanity was offended as my liberal inclinations supported them in their futility. Say this chant, though, one hundred and twenty seven times in an afternoon while holding a badly illustrated placard on a stick . . . placards are about all we can read.
Fifty per cent of NYC high school graduates still read below grade. What is that? We used to set “on grade” as the lowest standard to achieve; now it has become an accomplishment for even some of whom we have come to re-call elite in our public schools; oh! the gifted. Most of my child’s classmate’s parents will roll their eyes upon reading this, either from their immigrant fear and inclination to adopt the most knee jerk conservative responses politically, or most likely, they will not understand what I’m saying. I do see literacy slipping from the people I have worked for, worked with, worked under; but many of my child’s classmates parents just don’t have the English necessary, and too many of whom would teach them, if the non-native had the inclination to learn, do not either. This inclination is never as high as advocates for ESOL learning say, nor never as low as opponents of ESOL learning claim. What passes for remedial instruction in community colleges is often not intended to be better than what we still sponsor in our high schools. I have taught there for more than a decade and a half. If democracy is slipping–and it is–it is because we who want it have confused it for collectivism, a kind of mass appeal to the masses; a public instead of a people, something anything always before people. Students have become patrons; that is how it has been translated through every overly bureaucratized administration of whatever public service we speak about; administrators themselves see nothing they say or support or blindly adhered to, anything that comes from whatever mandate is stamped from on high, as part of the problem of making everything about business.
We do moo and baa together and call it our Ode to Freedom. Can we, though, articulate any sense of freedom other than entries and figures and calculations from the ledger books of state; have we so relativized meaning that we can no longer say anything about anything anywhere anytime. Who’s to say is what everyone says? It’s a great advertising ploy to get everyone to accept anything; all opinions have become equal; everyone is a genius for fifteen seconds. But if all things were relative, there would be nothing for anything to be relative to, which is pretty much where we have arrived, perpetual relativity ad nauseum, ad absurdum. With this, we have reached true nihilism, a nihilism at its purest. Infinite possibility does bury as I have said before. In our mass media culture, saying anything makes it so, even if only, again, for fifteen seconds, but that quarter of a minute is enough to sustain us in our thinking for years. There is no truth only perpetual topicality. If we lived in Bradbury’s world of Farenheit 451, though, all knowledge would be lost, all literature gone.
I should have seen the hand writing on the wall, a friend of mine said, when over the last two decades slowly, but inevitably, black people stopped telling it like it is; and in addition to this reversal from the days of my childhood, Jews became conservatives, and the likes of those without senses of humor. I mean, when a black man opts for mainstream and media endorsed stereotypes and a Jew loses his once historically conditioned sense of the absurd, I know something terrible is amiss. I know I am running the risk of framing my reminiscence in stereotypes. I don’t know what Joe thinks or would think if he were alive. I have no words for Joe, just as I have no words for any of the victims I have been taught I am supposed to feel something for; and try as I may to feel for the people close to me in my life, sometimes I fail to feel anything, or most of what I should, imagining some situation where I would be expected to feel something. This lack arises though, when I think about what I should be feeling, which is always a bit in abstentia in abstentia, a kind of absent-presence or present-absence superimposed over itself, an emptiness lingering over emptiness, this thinking about what kind of feeling I should feel is absurd. I can see the grocery store, sometimes his wife or his daughter, but principally, Joe, the grocery store owner, and the tatooed numbers on his arm, with the sleeves of his white shirt rolled halfway yo his forearms.