It’s 2021. Well done, all. Here’s to peace, good health, and good work in the new year.
It’s 2021. Well done, all. Here’s to peace, good health, and good work in the new year.
Standing third from the left, Parnell Hall one of the ways I remember him best: on the basketball court, where he had a funny (of course) one-legged stork shot that always went in. I remember him at the poker table, too, where he’d shake his head sadly at his cards, sigh at his luck, and leave at the end of the night with great piles of other people’s money. He was one of the first people I met in the crime-writing world. I was a last-minute substitute on a panel at Bouchercon Seattle in 1994. My first book had been out about an hour, I hadn’t expected a panel assignment, and I was terrified of being up there with the grownups. Turned out nothing I did mattered. Parnell and Donald Westlake spent 40 minutes being hilarious and ended the panel with a cream pie in the face. Parnell’s face, of course. He was generous, kind, funny, smart, and I’m going to miss him terribly.
God on His golden throne looked down on the earth and sighed. He called unto Himself all the smartest people in Heaven and they came, trailing clouds of glory, to hear His will.
“I despair,” said the Lord. “I meant for humankind to be the pinnacle of my Creation. Yet behold, they choose for their leaders the most selfish and evil among them. They persecute and kill each other and they lay waste on all sides. If they continue on this course they’ll soon destroy the emerald planet I made for them. What shall I do?”
From the smart people came the chorus, “Smite them! Smite them!”
“No,” the Lord said. “Honestly, I could have thought of that without you all clogging up my throne room. But I promised humankind free will. They must be allowed to choose their fate but they must NOT be allowed to proceed as they are doing. You were all human once. You know how they think. Who among you can make a suggestion?”
Silence fell among the smart people. Until finally one spoke up.
“Well,” said Charles Darwin, “I have an idea.”
Neither of these guys is the baby, who comes as soon as I fill the feeder, before the bigger squirrels and the birds get here. I think he sits and waits. These two are siblings, two of the four born in the tree this year. Things were not this amicable for long. They kept whacking each other over the head and diving for the best seeds. They did share the feeder without actually chasing each other off, though. A big crow came to watch, but he clearly decided the whole thing was just going to be trouble, so he left. Bella practically lost her mind over the two squirrels, but she was a little intimidated by the size of the crow. So was I.
A couple of people have asked if I’d write about what it’s like here in NYC these days. First, thanks for your concern, those of you who’ve asked if I and mine are okay. We are; I know what it looks like on the TV news, but this is not a war zone. I went to the Greenmarket this morning, on the north side of Union Square; the south side has been the staging area for the Manhattan protests. The farmers were selling produce and bread, people were shopping, folks were wearing masks and being orderly. Nevertheless, when I asked one of the farmers whether there’d been extra thought given to whether to come in today, she said no but they expected the market would shut down early as it had on Saturday to give people a chance to clear out before the protests started.
I’ve been hearing helicopters since Friday, sirens occasionally. I’m in the West Village, about a mile from Union Square itself and a mile from Soho, where a lot of luxury shops were hit hard. Near Union Square I saw three broken windows — a restaurant, where the bar had been looted, a Verizon store, and a sneaker store. Nothing else, though some stores are boarding up in anticipation of more to come tonight.
Will there be more tonight? I suspect so, but I also think the intensity will taper off. In normal times it would taper way off as people went back to work, but of course part of the problem is everyone’s been out of work for nearly three months.
I’ve seen videos of the looting at Gucci, at Dolce & Gabbana, and I’ve seen a lot of posts asking, “How does this help?” Also, photos of destruction with “I’ve never seen NYC like this!” captions.
First, for the NYC-has-hit-the-apocalypse crowd, I refer you to the 1970’s fiscal crisis, to AIDS, to 9/11 — oh, go look it up: the history of NYC. We’ve been here before. We’ll be here when this is over.
Second, and more important, for the “How does this help?” people, I suggest that’s the wrong question. For the record, nobody’s saying looting Gucci “helps.” But I’ll bet a lot of good upright citizens in 1773 asked, “How does this help?” when rioters seized 342 chests of tea from ships of the British East India Company — a private company — and dumped it overboard to protest government action. The rationale then was the same as now, and can be encapsulated into this: when Colin Kaepernick took a knee to protest police killing black men, he was called a son of a bitch by the sitting President and he lost his job. Or this: the Tulsa Race Massacre, 99 years ago to the day today, when white Tulsa rose up and, burning, murdering, and rampaging, destroyed the most prosperous black community in the country. (Did you learn about that riot in school?) Or this: the NYC Draft Riots of 1863, when a group of white men, angry at being drafted into the Army by a white President to fight other white men, lynched black men and burned buildings, including the Colored Orphan Asylum, to the ground. (Did you learn about that riot in school?)
I suggest that instead of uttering a rhetorical gasp, people might read Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Colson Whitehead, Attica Locke, Ta-Nehisi Coates; to listen to measured voices, which are speaking even now; and to ask the only question that can even begin to stop this endless repetition, which is: “How can I help?”
They’ll be back. But I want to talk about Assisi. Every time I say, “Hey, I’m teaching in Assisi this summer, come do a workshop!” some of you say you wish you’d known sooner, and some say, yes, you’ll come some year…
So here’s the thing. For you folks who wish you’d known sooner, it’s January and the program starts at the end of July! This is about as soon as I could tell you!
For you folks saying some year, I get it, I really do, but: Notre Dame will be under scaffolding for the next 20 years. Yes, I know that’s not in Italy. My point: if you’d been saying “some year” about seeing Notre Dame…
I understand if you can’t afford it. Though keep in mind that one, right now the workshop has an early bird 10% off special; and two, many organizations give in-service kinds of grants to help with this type of thing, especially if you’re an educator. The dollar is strong right now and flight prices are low.
But if something besides money is holding you back, let me entice you: the hotel is lovely (we all stay there, all classes are held there, we all dine together), the food is wonderful, the town is quiet and beautiful, and — your book isn’t writing itself!
First, I found you a photo of Monty’s apartment from the living room looking out to the terrace. Those chairs are where we had morning coffee, fruit, and bread, before embarking on the day.
Now: Monty and his nephew Sam, my traveling companions, have cousins in Cuba. The connection is through Monty’s mother, a Cuban who met and married an American in North Carolina (where I’ll be in a few weeks for the Crime Scene Mystery Bookfest in Fearrington, she says parenthetically) in the 1940’s. They weren’t living in Cuba when the Revolution came, but much of the family was. What happened was, if you supported the Revolution and stayed, and you owned a house, you could keep it, though if you also had rental properties the government took them and gave them to poor families — often those who’d been renting from you. If you left, whatever property you left behind was forfeit. (Thus the supply of gorgeous Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Mid-Century Modern furniture in the used furniture shops.)
The cousins, Olimpia and Carlos, believed in the Revolution and stayed — in fact Carlos, an economist, worked at the Cuban Consulate in Berlin for a number of years. They had a terrific Art Deco house and they have it still. It was built by an artist, and has a garden and a breezeway to a rear building that served as his studio, and now houses Olimpia and Carlos’s son Pepe and his family.
Olimpia and Pepe in front of the house.
Back house, interior. All original 1930’s.
Front house, staircase.
Front house, display nook under staircase.
Front house, secret bathroom behind display nook.
Cousins in the garden. Monty, my buddy and traveling companion, is in the white shirt on the sofa, and Sam is the bearded guy standing on the right. Standing with him are Pepe, Pepe’s sister Claudia, and one of Claudia’s sons. Seated are Olimpia, Claudia’s other son (he’s in the Army) and Carlos. Pepe’s wife and kids were traveling, and Claudia’s husband was working. The garden has four mango trees but it wasn’t mango season, sob.
I was only in Cuba for a week, only in Havana except for the day we went to the beach. So I’m hardly an expert on living arrangements on the island. I can, though, show you what I saw.
First, in this post, Monty’s apartment. He only recently bought it, so it’s still being furnished. (Thus, from my earlier blog post, the pillows, blankets, and hardware.) It’s on the 5th floor of a 7-story building constructed in 1958, designed by Maria Elena Cabarrocas, an architect from a distinguished family of Cuban architects. The light when you walk in is amazing: the front wall has two wood jalousie doors that open onto the terrace and two glass panels beside them, floor to ceiling.
View from the terrace
Shot with my back to the terrace, living room/dining area. (Though anytime we ate in the apartment we ate on the terrace.) Monty walking toward the bedrooms. Kitchen door on the immediate right, door to maid’s room (!) a little farther on right.
The building has 2 long thin apartments per floor, designed so every room has cross ventilation. Some of the windows are wood jalousies to allow the breeze; for some reason unknown to me Havana seems to have few mosquitoes* — although I came bug-ready, with repellent and anti-itch cream — so the jalousie windows have no screens. In each room at least one of the windows is glass, so in a rainstorm when you close the jalousies there’s still light.
Monty had already bought a fridge; the way it works, sometimes there are fridges in the stores, sometimes there are stoves, sometimes there are clothes washers, depending on what ship came in. When we got there, lo! the store had stoves, so he bought one even though the kitchen still needs to be renovated. Right now, the stove in its box is serving as a coffee table.
One of the best parts of the trip was shopping for furniture. Havana has a number of stores selling mid-century modern furniture that was sold off or left behind as people fled the Revolution, or since then. Although the provenance of any individual piece might be a sad story — or not — the furniture is beautiful and Monty is happy to support the Cuban economy and give pieces new homes.
View from the building’s hallway into the apartment as the new bench arrives.
Next post, Monty’s cousins, two other homes we visited, plus some other residential exteriors, inhabited and not.
*There are those who say it’s the constant ocean breeze, and those who say it’s the government anti-mosquito program since the advent of dengue fever.