Sunday, November 29, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 221.3: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 3

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Remembrance: His Childhood

He was born as Robert Earl Gallagher in Elmira, New York, in 1934. His older sister and his younger brother were both born with different last names.

In some ways, it seems remarkable that his family registered him as Gallagher, his father's family name. For the most part, the family avoided using their Irish name and took on English names for the sake of employment. My grandma June was mostly English and she went by Light, Pond, or Roberts.

When my father was two years old, his father died. As a consequence (one of many effects, of course), my father grew up as Bobby Roberts, a step-child and sometimes a homeless one. His mother June worked as a maid. She picked up more side jobs after she became the breadwinner but she had two children already and this was during the Great Depression. Even for part-time maid jobs, June had competition to undercut her. And sometimes her employers didn't pay up.

When June remarried, her new husband was out of work. Despite pooling their money, they couldn't make rent. Their landlord evicted them. June had learned a lesson, though, from her previous evictions. She knew that she couldn't pay enough, so she saved her money. By the third or fourth eviction, she had developed self-preservation habits. She saved enough to move into another apartment with the first month of rent and a security deposit. She never paid the next landlord more than that if she could help it. She knew she didn't have the income to pay a steady rent anywhere and often she couldn't pay the utilities. Instead, she fed her family and saved what she could. Usually by the time she was thrown out, she had enough saved for the first month of rent and a security deposit on their next place.

On the days they were thrown out of their home, my father returned from school to find everything on the curb. Part of that time, he discovered that his toys and clothes had been stolen or given away.

Each time, June told my father that he could take nothing but his clothes. She was more sentimental about his sister, Jenny, so Jenny got to take a few dolls. His little brother Jack still had a father living with them, so Jack got to take nearly all of his things. His father packed them for him. Jack was the baby of the family and Jenny was the girl. My father felt caught in the middle.

He told me later that it was always clear that his parents didn't like him. They often told him so. With each eviction came a reminder of what that meant. His brother and sister took boxes with them, usually carried by June or her husband. My father carried his clothes by himself.

Elmira is not a big town. After June's second husband died, too, it got harder to find a place to live. Some landlords would not rent to a woman. Many of them knew about her schemes by that point anyway. Her brother, Jack Light, drove up from Baltimore in a rented car. This was a big deal. It changed all of their lives. Because Jack had come to take his sister's family back home with him.

When I grew up, my father kept telling me what a great city Baltimore was. I accepted that as a simple statement of fact. My trips to Lexington Market in Baltimore felt exciting because it was apparently the best food market in the best city in the world.

(Lexington Market in its heyday had an amazing variety of local, craft foods. Most butchers in the city had a stall in the market and they brought their freshest meats. They cut them in front of their customers, sometimes a scary process for kids but often not. The vegetables, the milk, the cheese, and even the pickles were unique. In the late 1960s, I could reliably start from an entrance door and run two blocks through a crowd of a few thousand people to a particular pickle vendor that I found by the mouthwatering smell of the barrels. Even in the mid-1970s when Lexington was losing ground to supermarkets, the freshness of the food was impossible to match. Nowadays, that's still true. The close-to-the-farm distribution style no longer exists. Once, when I was fourteen, I helped pack and then unpack sandwich steaks that a butcher had cut extra thin for my father. Three of the steaks never made it to the freezer. The smell had been driving me crazy. I ate them raw on the way into the house. My father was basically right about Lexington Market. It kicked ass.)

The market aside, my father's sentiments for Baltimore didn't make sense to me even as I accepted them. Only later did I realize what the city had meant. His uncle Jack had taken him from sometimes-homelessness to a brick rowhouse with his own half-room, from being told by his parents that they didn't like him to being told by his uncle that he was fine, from having his comic books thrown out every few months to being able to collect things, even coins, without someone stealing them. (Well, except for his brother Jack, who, as younger siblings sometimes do, helped himself to the collections and spent the coins when my father was in Korea.)

Before Baltimore, my father's attendance at schools had been haphazard. Fortunately, he had turned to reading to escape the realities of his life. His self-teaching proved to be just barely enough to make it into City College. (City College, despite its name, was and is a prestigious public high school.) He ran on the high school track team, idolized the football players and decathletes, traveled after school on foot with other boys to stare in awe at the local bouncer who played for the Baltimore Colts, and mostly enjoyed himself except for the long-running feud with his mother. A few months before he turned seventeen, North Korea invaded South Korea. My father responded by walking into his local recruiting station.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 221.2: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 2

Robert Gallagher, Wake


When I was three and living in Germany, my parents insisted that we start meals with a prayer. Often I led the prayer. My father listened to me in my sing-song voice for about half a year of our occasional ritual before he figured out that my final words at the end of each prayer were, "come in." Apparently, I couldn't make any other sense out of what grown-ups were saying at the end.

He tried to correct me. He told me it was "amen" even I though, at the age of three, that didn't make any sense. My mother pointed out that "come in" was nice. She actually defended it! That let to my father regarding the whole situation, including my mother's rationalization, as funny. So he did what he did best. He told that story about me for the next fifty-one years.

He told some good stories. He told a lot, good, bad, and just plain interesting.  He wasn't shy about re-telling his classics.

Now, an old friend of mine once said that I showed a great strength for misrepresenting the classics. In light of that strength, I will now misrepresent you The Book of Common Prayer, verse 1928, and an inappropriate passage from the Book of John.

We have in our hands our merciful father and we commit his ashes to this cigar box in the spirit of his Scots-Irish sensibilities, earth to earth, cigar ashes to ashes, wood chipper to mulch.

Let not your heart be troubled. 

In my father's house, there are many newspapers. If it were not so, we would not be such a long time cleaning up. Whatever comes next, we are preparing.

We will go and prepare a place for all and we will receive you all. Wherever we are, you may be also. And if you have known us, you have known our father also, even if you have never met him. If you have seen us, you have seen him. Do you not believe that we are in our father and our father lives in us? Our father dwells in our bodies. At times, he speaks from our mouths and we do his works.

Verily, verily, I say unto you, the works that we do, he does also. The better we are, the more to his glory.

Our father, in this cigar box, hallowed be thy name. We've read your will. Your will be done. Here, as it hardly ever was in life. You gave to us our daily bread. We forgave one another our trespasses. We mostly forgave those who trespassed against us. You didn't quite resist temptation. But you delivered us to where we are now, in a good place. Come in.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 221.1: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 1

Robert Gallagher, Wake


My father must have had a hundred jokes. That sounds good but actually there are three hundred sixty five days in a year. And he told more than one joke per day.

Humor Crusader

When I was ten, I spent a lot of time in the math lab and the teacher's lounge at Northwood High School, where my father worked. He was the Math Resource Teacher by that time. The position gave him a bit of extra money and responsibility. He got to plan the math class schedules, hire teachers, and assign them to classes.

One day, a medium-tall black man walked into the lab. He had on a suit jacket and glasses. He asked me who I was and then ignored me while I played. When my dad walked in a few minutes later, the man greeted my father with a big handshake and a smile.

"I got the transfer," he said. "I'm already teaching history."

"Good," said my father. "How do you like it?"

"Way better than math." They both got a big laugh out of that.

I asked why the man didn't like math. At ten, I thought it was fine enough. My father responded with some sort of joke. He would never have explained it, I guess, not to a ten year old. It was the black man who spoke up.

"No one in the county would hire me," he said. "But a friend of mine told me about your dad. Your dad got me in the system. I had to teach math for a year. But I always wanted to be a history teacher. Once I was in the system, I transferred. See, I could even transfer to where they didn't want me."

"They need history teachers there, too," said my dad.

"Your father is doing a good thing."

By this point, I sensed an adult-world sort of mystery. There was something going on that they hadn't explained. I kept asking. It took them a few minutes more to fully reveal my father's method. It wasn't something my father would have told me on his own. But the other man thought it was important. He insisted. In fact, he did most of the telling.

At the time, the county teacher hiring forms went through one woman in the central office. It wasn't that this woman controlled the decisions, really, just that the paperwork all went through her. She refused to process the hiring of black teachers for any place that she didn't consider a black school. That meant there were hardly any black teachers hired each year, sometimes none.

My father didn't have the ability to hire black History teachers or English teachers or foreign language teachers. However, the county had made an exception for math teachers. As usual, no school could get enough of them. So the local principals and math resource teachers were allowed to hire candidates 'on the spot.' My father's principal had given him the freedom to hire anyone who he wanted. The word got out. Robert Gallagher was hiring blacks at Northwood High School.

Yes, you had to teach math in your first year. After that, you were expected to transfer out to the job you really wanted. Then my father would hire another black teacher and the cycle would start again. It was their way of beating the county hiring system, which was one that wasn't admitting more than the minimum quota of African Americans.

It wasn't a major rebellion on my father's part, I think. He felt that he was doing the right thing and it was nothing more than that. He never said anything more about it aside from that one conversation. He was committing a series of small acts that, by necessity, flew under the radar of everyone except his principal and a few fellow teachers. For a while, one of those teachers he hired, Regina Skyles, did socialize with us and we got to know her family until she transferred. Other than that, the teachers remained co-workers who we, in the rest of the family, never thought about.

For less than a decade in the late sixties and early seventies, my father found it necessary to trick the system a little. Tricks like those were his strength. And mostly, he did them with a laugh.


An addendum:

I think my father and his principal pushed through as many black math teachers as they could. That meant having enough math classes to occupy them.

It’s hard to schedule for extra math teachers if you don’t have a need for them. They had to go an extra step to create an extra need.

In those years, my father taught psychology, philosophy, and Russian classes. I think that in most of those years he only taught one or two math classes. That was his course load as the math resource teacher: pretty much anything but math. Surely it must’ve seemed unusual. It also meant that other parts of the school were chipping in for the civil rights effort whether they wanted to or not. There must have been some risk of complaints. Part of the principal's role in the scheme must’ve been to quell those complaints. Quickly, with emphasis. 

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Not Zen 201: The Breakthrough

Straight jacket by Rodw, Wikimedia

The Breakthrough

This is the scene: a crazy man stands on the edge of a garden, waiting to attack.

Why he waits is hard to know.  He stares at Eqbal, the groundskeeper.  Eqbal's job is to cut the grass, trim the hedge, and supervise the five supposedly-therapeutic gardens.  He kneels, now, in a vegetable patch.  He holds a small hand spade in his left hand.  The crazy man, whose name is Monroe, stands at the edge of the patch.  He is pale and wears a straight-jacket.

The straight-jacket has not become untied.   It is simply old, as many of them are at the home.  The straps were frayed.  Monroe broke out.  He popped five straps at the seams, where they had been re-sewn many times.  Now they flap as he moves his arms.  This is his third time out of a jacket.


Monroe is taller than Eqbal but less massive.  The gardener has very strong arms, a lot of bulk.  He looks less like a desert Arab and more like a drawing of an old Persian king, except for in his face.  His face is plain and, because of it, Eqbal appears slow-witted.  He is not.  Even some of his friends think he has a dull mind; this is because he does not speak much and is reluctant to act on an impulse.  Also, he has not been to school since he was nine.  He only came to America on the recommendation of one of his younger brothers.  It was this same brother who got him a job at the home.

So Monroe stands trembling, hovering at the edge of the garden, as if waiting for Eqbal to become aware.  It would not be fair to say the two do not know each other.  Eqbal has often been cruel to Monroe.  He has described the horrible things doctors will do, has made faces behind his back, has made hand gestures towards him, and has been a general nuisance.  These are all things he does out of fear.  Eqbal cannot understand why the violent cases are allowed to live.  He does not like his job and, in the morning, trembles at the thought of going to work.  His wife tells him he is silly, a coward.

And here a violent man is, free, standing at the edge of the tilled soil.  Eqbal, who had been bending over to check a sprout, feels the shadow across his back.  He stands up.

He stares at Monroe.  In the first second, he thinks, Where did this man come from?  Why is there no nurse with him?  In another second, he wonders, Is this patient escaping?  Why did he come here?  To find me?

Monroe trembles.  He begins breathing louder.  Eqbal can see the terrible, unreasoning rage in those eyes.  

Monroe runs into the garden, a mad bull, an animal, swinging his fists for twenty feet before he even gets to Eqbal.  When Eqbal gets hit in all this flurry of limbs, it surprises him.  It knocks him back a step and turns his vision purple for an instant.  Monroe swings again.  So Eqbal hits back.

Up to this point in his life, Eqbal has never hit with all the force of his being.  This punch is inspired by fear.  It has all his concentration.  It sends a shiver through his body.  Monroe goes down.  A second later, he pops back up, swinging all the while, driving Eqbal out of the garden.

A few punches later, flesh stinging, Eqbal says to himself, Enough of this, and hits Monroe again.  This punch is like the first one, only more deliberate.  Even Monroe notices it; he coughs up a bit of phlegm and falls to one knee.  By his knee is the hand-spade.  Monroe blinks at it.  He picks it up.

Holding the implement like a knife, the patient charges.  At last Eqbal knows what to do.  He steps to the side as Monroe begins his wide, wild swing.  He grabs the offending arm by the wrist and twists, hard.  It is an old army move.  His reflexes are in action now.  He twists and drives Monroe to the ground, slams an open hand to the back of Monroe's elbow, and feels a pop.  He thinks he has broken Monroe's arm.

"Drop it," he says.  "Drop the knife and I'll let you up."  He knows his accent is not good.  For a moment, he is afraid the patient cannot understand him.

Monroe thinks about it.  His eyes are watery now, not only because his arm nearly snapped but also out of frustration.  He strains, kicks, tries to stand, to shake Eqbal off him, but Eqbal is immovably immense.  He lets go of the hand-spade.

"Okay."  Eqbal grabs the spade and throws it into the bushes, where Monroe will think it is lost but where it can be found later.

While Eqbal throws the gardening tool, Monroe rolls and scrambles, fighting to get to his feet.  This isn’t necessary.  Eqbal lets him.  Once standing, Monroe dashes away toward the trees for three or four large strides.  Then he turns around again and rushes back, swinging his fists on the run, at Eqbal.

Eqbal is all army, now.  He takes Monroe up, puts him down, hard, on his back, on the ground, on a little piece of shale that bruises Monroe in the middle of his spine.  That done, Eqbal steps away.  He cannot bring himself to do any more.

Uneasily, Monroe stands.  For a moment, he wonders where he is.  He feels his need to fight draining away.  In its place, a sickly dread arises.  The world seems new and terribly uncertain.  He wobbles; he cannot believe his legs will not obey him.  He makes fists but they feel weak.  He is afraid to charge again.

Eqbal studies him, waiting for the attack.  He does not accept that Monroe is no longer dangerous until the pale, mop-haired man begins to cry.  The tears well up and the sound that comes out of Monroe's mouth is a wail Eqbal has never heard before.  It is a sound he does not want to hear, a beastly cry, the cry of a child's voice in a man's body.  It is horrible.  Yet even after this cry begins, Eqbal cannot believe Monroe is not dangerous.  The crazy man leans back and cries to the sky, to himself, to everything.

Eqbal takes half a step forward.  Monroe does not move; he only cries.  The next few steps are more difficult.  Eqbal is trembling.  He is still frightened by Monroe but, of course, he has learned he can beat him, can beat all that rage and hatred by sheer, physical force.  Eqbal walks forward because he must do something to stop the crying.  He holds up a hand; Monroe only cries.  He embraces Monroe.  Monroe cries.

Then something strange happens.  Monroe puts his arms around Eqbal, gently, as if afraid to touch him, afraid to hurt him.  He hugs Eqbal and his crying changes.  He begins to say the first words he has said in two years, though he and Eqbal have no sense of that.

"Oh God," Monroe says.  "Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God." 

He keeps repeating it.  The words have become his litany, his wailing.  His hug grows tighter and tighter still, until Eqbal is trembling under it.  He is amazed by the strength in Monroe's arms and further amazed that he is not hurt by it.  Monroe continues to say Oh God, Oh God as he cries.  Eqbal wails along with him.  It is too horrible for one person, alone, to be as sad as this.

Out the window of her office, the Chief Psychologist sees Eqbal and Monroe embrace.  It takes her a moment to realize what it is because most of what she sees is Eqbal's huge back.

She drops her fork and part of her carry-out Szechuan Chicken lunch.  Coincidently, the words she utters to herself are, "Oh God."  This comes when she recognizes Monroe for who and what he is.  She prides herself on knowing many case files by heart and she knows instantly this is the first friendly contact Monroe has made in years.  A breakthrough has been made.  She rushes out of her office and down the stairs.

Monroe seems better for a few days.  He talks, though he does not form complete sentences.  He eats his meals with a fork and takes his medication orally.  There is no repeat of the hugging incident.  He refuses to let the doctors touch him.  When his relatives come to visit, he becomes violent.  He blackens his father's eye.  The old man is nearly eighty and quite frail; he is fortunate not to have been hurt worse.

That afternoon, Monroe is put back into the straight-jacket.

A doctor recommends electroshock to return his lost complacency and the administrator agrees.  Up to this point, the family has resisted permission.  After violence toward one of their own, however, they seem to relinquish their previous sense of hope.  Over the course of the next month, Monroe's father, mother and older brother are won over to the idea.  They agree there is no possibility of a cure.  Fortunately, the therapy goes well.  The patient is reduced to manageable hostility.

When the administrators find out how this all came about, this is what they do for their poor, Arab groundskeeper: they fire him.  Witnesses say he provoked the violence and that he is cruel.  Eqbal does not argue.  The administrators tell him they will refer him to another facility if he will agree not to contest the decision.  His brother advises him to agree.  So he does.  He goes to his new job, in fact, before Monroe has had shock therapy.  When he leaves, he thinks that his new friend is on the way to a cure.  On his way out, he stops by Monroe's room to say goodbye.  Monroe cries and tries to hug Eqbal but he is confined by a straight-jacket.  He touches his forehead carefully to the gardener’s forehead.

The attendant starts to make a note about this additional incident of friendly contact but, feeling tired, she sets it aside for later and never actually writes it down.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 220: Snake Dance

Snake Dance

His wife screamed, "You hit it!"

as he got out of his car to look, hands on hips,

scowled at nine feet of black snake, head as big as his fist.

The serpent regarded him not at all

and only continued its slow crawl across the gravel.

"It’s fine," said Theseus. “I didn’t hit it.”

Then he surveyed the watery ditches on each side

and complained, “There’s no way around.”

"Well, you can't just run over it."

And that was that.

He picked up a dead branch and snapped off the twigs,

paused to loosen his belt a notch,

nervous and overweight, a long time since

battling Sinis or Skiron

or the embarrassing incident with the snapping turtle.

This monster looked heavy, riddled with rabbit-sized lumps,

then chipmunk-sized, mouse-sized towards the middle, 

nibbles at the tail.

Quick, like a whip it snapped

when he touched the body with the stick.

His wife screamed.

The serpent did not bite,

nor did it even even try, 

but hissed from the indignity,

Weary, it twitched to avoid the stick,

and in a minute hissed again 

from the ditch on the other side of the road,

after he tossed it a few feet 

to where it wanted to be.  

It crawled into the grass, invisible in a few seconds,

ready for the next unwary chipmunk.

They stared for a moment, silent,

at the tall weeds and ditch water.

Although Theseus killed the centaurs 

and the minotaur, long ago, to his shame,

he did manage to rescue one thing, at least.

He tossed away his weapon

and swung back into the car.

His wife tucked in his shirt.

“You’re getting slow,” she said.

“Yeah, yeah.” He slipped the car into gear

while she flicked off leaf fragments and dirt from his jeans.

Her lips brushed against his cheek

and they rolled forward

slowly, again, through another enchanted forest.