After we saw Amazing Grace, we decided we’d be total fools if we didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to see national treasure, living history, wildly talented musician Mavis Staples perform live for her 80th birthday at the Apollo Theatre. And we weren’t disappointed, of course; in addition to Mavis herself, she was joined by a coterie of other terrific musicians (like Valerie June in that fabulous lime-green number at left). And it was more than a show; in both the songs and the stories Mavis shared, the evening was a testament to the power of music to change hearts, sustain social movements, and bring meaning and purpose to life over eras and generations.
I was listening to this episode of This American Life, “No Fair,” in which a preschool teacher offered her students a “tattle phone” (connected to nothing) to which they could report their many, many instances of unfairness. My colleague with whom I was listening to it laughed and described 311, the number for non-emergency government services in New York City, as our version of the “tattle phone.” So I ended up putting together this little piece about a 311 operator. Enjoy!
Three One One
Hello, and thank you for calling 311 in New York City. We’re here to help, but we cannot help you, not really. You are about to be connected to Lena, a lapsed Catholic who hasn’t talked to her mother in a while and missed her student loan payment last month while wondering if she should go to law school. Can Lena help you? She’ll listen, absently, while sipping an iced marshmallow latte from Dunkin’ Donuts on the corner near her subway stop on Church Avenue. The women who make the drinks there wear hijabs, and it’s Ramadan (alternate side parking regulations will be suspended for Eid al-Fitr; meter regulations remain in effect), and Lena feels badly for them, working all day around the too-sweet cold drinks and the pillowy doughnuts, even though it’s their choice to fast, to remember the less fortunate, like the quiet Chinese man who lives in the subway station and waits for Fatima and Noor to give him the day-old doughnuts every night. Lena worries about him too.
Lena will try to help you. But if this is an emergency, hang up, and dial nine-one-one, and may God have mercy on all of our souls.
I’m going to see the legendary Mavis Staples tonight! We decided to get tickets after we saw Amazing Grace and were bummed we never got to see Aretha Franklin live. In that spirit, I’m throwing back to last month and my reflection on that terrific film. Enjoy, and expect a report on Mavis soon.
This one has a long title; the full title is “Everything from the hive is beneficial./Amazing creatures the Lord made,” which is a direct quote from this article about the event that inspired the poem: an arson in a beehive collective in Texas that killed perhaps half a million bees.
Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a better past.
There are people I’ve been trying to forgive for years. How do you forgive someone who’s died, for example? How do you forgive when the scars of a hurt are ones you reckon with daily? Even when I sit down to write, I’m up against the forces that saw my thinking and my creativity as a threat, as something to be tamped down rather than lifted up. When I can forget about those forces, writing is a joy; when they are louder or more forceful than usual, and I have to sit with them for a while, writing is painful, then slowly an act of rebellion that sometimes feels satisfying but just as often feels petulant and insignificant.
So here we are, two weeks after Easter, and we are talking about forgiveness. Two weeks after Jesus rose from the dead, as Jesus is walking around with the marks of crucifixion still on his body, and we return to the words he did not take back after his violent execution. “How often should I forgive my brother?” Peter, ever the asking-for-a-friend type, inquires, and Jesus answers, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.”
I said to Dakota, “What should I write a story about?”, and he said, “Write about the time Sookie got out.” So, based on the very true story of when I lived in Greenpoint and Sookie escaped for three days, this is “Bartosz and the Cat.”
Bartosz and the Cat
Bartosz was already running late, his paint-spattered boots smacking a staccato beat against the steel plates on the stairs, when he saw the cat, sitting under the stairs, her eyes wide and stupid. He remembered the face and the red collar from the flyer slipped under his door— “Lost Cat,” his daughter Kasia said, in her loud, clear English, “oh, Papa, ktoś stracił kota,” she translated into Polish for him. “Dziewczyna numer cztery.” He only nodded, grunted, “Hmmph.” The girl in number four. Why Cas had rented to an American girl, who could say. Probably she could pay. Greenpoint was getting more expensive by the month and, with one of those Brooklyn girls in, Cas would probably get greedy and see how much more he could charge.
And now her cat was missing. Except it wasn’t, because there it was, sitting under the stairs.
#tbt to my last #FlashFictionFriday, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” If you haven’t read it yet, I’d love for you to check it out!