It’s Mourning In/Of America

I was at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in south St. Louis county this morning to observe the burial of my uncle, Bethel Smith. It’s the second trip in about 2.5 months to a military cemetery that I’ve had to make to bury one of my father’s younger siblings; we lost my aunt, Carolyn Mitchell, in February in Chicago right as the pandemic was making its appearance outside of the west coast. Aunt Carolyn rests across the Mississippi River in Illinois about 200 miles north at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, and Uncle Bethel joins his wife, my aunt Delores at the second largest military burial ground in the country here in Missouri.

It was a pretty day outside. You can see in the picture how blue the sky was. I saw some deer slowly roaming through the headstones. You could see the sparkling edge of south leg of the Gateway Arch up the river. It was a peaceful scene. It wasn’t a normal day. But it was pretty.

We were surrounded by about 200,000 Americans, but we couldn’t have been much more socially distant. My uncle couldn’t get the gun salute that he earned because of COVID; staffing was cut. We had to stand outside of our cars about 50 yards away from the shared plot with masks on as they lowered his casket so as to keep those of us still on this side of the grass healthy. My cousins had to wait for an hour so that the workers could cover everything up before they could approach the spot where their parents rested to say a final goodbye. They went to see their other relatives that were buried there to pass the time.

My dad had had enough though, and rightfully so. He’d done what he could for his best friend. I’d one-day, round-tripped a drive for us to the other side of the state to Kansas City four days ago for the funeral 250 miles away. There was a personal and funny eulogy by their mutual friend, a pastor, that flew up from Texas just for the day. Dad did his tribute to his childhood bedmate and knocked it out of the park, as expected, but somehow even better than expected. But it was getting warmer outside. He’d more than represented already. He’d more than done his duty. It was time for me to do mine.

I drove him, my sister, and brother-in-law the 30 minutes or so back to U. City so they could carry on with their day. I dropped them off at the houses and stayed in the car since I needed to make a rare fill-up for the car. I took off for the gas station. It was still a pretty day, but getting warmer.

I’d been basically incapable of leaving the house much in the past couple of weeks because I’d been suffering from a particularly bad flair-up from my home country’s congenital birth defect. This breakout was a bad one, but predictable. I’d been on a really big roller coaster ride this time.

At times I was feverish…beyond angry and seeing red, which made me pace around. I felt the blues…as depressingly similar spoonfuls of pablum and bile were both swallowed and spewed, seemingly all around me, if tried to read anything. But this time I kept trying to avoid seeing an orange mass that kept trying to pop into my line of sight if I tried to look at a screen; but it kept showing up and getting in the way of my vision like a pesky floater in your eye that you have no control over.

But my nature wills out and I’m a traveler by nature. Roaming is as congenital in me as what forever ills this land. I will literally get sicker if I’m not traveling and exploring and doing something novel, regularly. Today was a great driving day. I’d already psyched myself up the night before to go out to the cemetery to do what I had to do. And after I’d arrived at Jefferson Barracks the first time, I’d already felt better about having to go. I was more chill. I was OK. So I sanitized the 87 octane pump handle, filled up, took off my mask, and rolled out. It was almost hot now, but it was still pretty.

My mom, Jamae Milam, died 3 years ago on Thursday. She was out at the cemetery too. I hadn’t been to see her yet. My uncle, Clyde Turner, who’s house was around the corner from ours, died about 2.5 months before mom did. I hadn’t been out to see him yet either. My mom’s younger and only brother, James Scott, Jr., was out there as well, and I’d never seen his plot; I had attended the funeral at the time in 2011, but not been back for a look. And my great aunt, Irma Milam French, aka “Auntie”, was out there. My first time ever out at JB was for her funeral in 1997. I don’t think I’d seen her headstone though.

I was fine with not having made this tour before. I didn’t feel guilty, but it was time. I was ready. I wanted to say “hi” to my people. I needed to be around some people that knew me and that I knew. I wanted to be around some folks that had been through worse than I’ve been through, been called worse things more frequently than I’ve been, and been called un-American and not worthy by so many in this country (and even at that cemetery) because of their existence and resistance then, let alone what they what they would think about what was going on right now.

I wanted to be around some soldiers in my family there where they lay today. Because, while I do not like and cannot stand the jingoistic and nationalistic crap that so many “real Americans” hide behind and wrap themselves up in, I know that, on some level, some of those people will be able to find some sort of humanity in Black people if only because they put on a uniform and their “Americaness” is etched in stone…never to be erased or denied. Somehow, they’ve existed here and they didn’t know that Black military families was a thing, but they might know now. I don’t need their stamp of approval to exist. And I don’t claim valor from my deceased family members’ service (hello Uncle Tilmon) and those of their spouses (hello also Aunt Hazel) either. That’s theirs alone. But I point this fact out in this picture because it’s a possible point of contact for actual communication for some people; it’s an extra credit point that shouldn’t be needed but is part and parcel of all the extra that “we” always have to do to get half as far.

Always having to do that extra just to exist and to be recognized and to matter in this life is nonsense and flat out burdensome. That fact for some of “us” is truly part of why “we” are so pissed off AGAIN this time. One shouldn’t need to have been in the military or have been from a military family to be given respect. One shouldn’t need to change their voice and hope that their names are not too Black sounding so that can try to get the loan they want or the apartment they need. One shouldn’t need to have gone to Harvard and “only” be a bird watcher to be considered not dangerous. And one shouldn’t need three camera angles, good audio, and 8 minutes and 46 seconds of footage to be believed when they say that they get harassed and killed by the police all the time no matter what they do or how much they comply.

But while some people will never understand how much extra we always have to do just to get through the day and think that’s OK, I will never think that. I’ll always think that extra is wrong. Because while all of my relatives here are recognized as humans and Americans because of this military pedigree, they were also literal sharecroppers, cotton pickers, janitors, health care workers, scholars, educators, cartographers, engineers, government intelligence, screw ups, and geniuses…you know…HUMANS. And that should be enough for ANY ONE, not just my family.

This extra shit is unfair and unjust, period, and that’s an understatement. But we’ve done it because we’ve had to, and we do it because WE’RE. NOT. GOING. ANYWHERE. “We’ve” been here since our ancestors were brought here against their will and are entirely integral to the existence of this place whether some people want to acknowledge it or not. We are here. Canada doesn’t want any more Americans, and we’re not going there. It’s too cold up there. And it wasn’t a normal day down here today south of the border, but it was warm and it was pretty.

So I said “hi” to all of my people and I felt much better after the trip. I wasn’t that sad. I was a little, but really not that much at all. I wanted to tell them that we’d all been locked up in our houses for the last 3 months, that more than 100,000 people had died, that there were cities burning all over the country, and that things were still super bad since unemployment was so high, and that 3 inch hornets were coming, and that an orange man was in the White House and he was very bad. But that would have given them the chance to say, “Whew….I’m glad I’m not up there,” and I didn’t want them to laugh at me for being up here…so I withheld that information. (They might know already anyway…) I made it back home and thought about how I could try to start to talk and not yell at 300 decibels about what’s going on; so, I made this barely thought out note.

And with as many words as this was, I really haven’t said anything yet. This isn’t even a preamble to what needs to be said and heard. And things will certainly not only be said and heard by me in the near future.

You see, as much as I’m a congenital traveler, I’m a congenital communicator. I can’t help it. I talk too much and want to hear others and show others even more. But more than that I want all things to be understood by all people. It’s naive, I know, but I don’t care. It’s what allows me to get out of bed every morning to try again another day. And if you don’t have hope, you have almost no reason to try to go on. But I will go on.

In the past, I tried to set up my entire life around these two congenital conditions of mine. Other things got in the way before I could fully complete what I wanted to do in the way I wanted to do it, and life happened; but life happens to everyone. I’m not special, but I do count. And since I know that my life and all other Black lives matter, I’ll carry on. I’ll keep on keepin’ on like my family and people always have. I’ll go on and and continue to try to learn and teach and to be better, because for me that’s what makes up a normal day. And for me, that’s pretty good.

KWMU’s Bob McCabe Leaving The Control Booth After 20+ Years

Image

Bob McCabe looking pensive, knowledgeable, relaxed, and totally at home in “air control” at the University of Missouri St. Louis studios of KWMU in February of 2010.

For morning listeners of public radio in St. Louis over the past 20+ years, this is the face to put to the voice and name of Bob McCabe that you’ve been waking up to and driving to work to while listening to either the news or classical music.  I shot this picture when I was back in St. Louis in 2010 to record and live stream St. Louis local, fellow U. City alum,  and world renowned jazz pianist Peter Martin in his inaugural Peter Martin Music: Live! series with guest Diane Reeves.  Peter was at KWMU to do and interview for Cityscape, and I had a quick bit of time to talk to Bob and catch up with him between breaks in programming.

I had the pleasure to not only work with “Bob” when I was an intern and an employee on the air at KWMU from 1992 through 2000, but I also knew “Mr. McCabe” when he was my home room teacher during my senior year of high school at University City Senior High.  He was an English teacher at the high school for years and my guess is that most radio listeners didn’t know that.

And on top of that, before I re-met Bob as a colleague and not a student, I found out that he spent 11 years working in the Catholic ministry and time singing and recording with the St. Louis Symphony Chorus for two seasons, and working in other areas of St. Louis theater community.  And my guess is that most radio listeners didn’t know that either.

In spite of our completely goofy relationship that we ended up having when the “on-air” light went off in the studio, I always went away impressed with the rich and diverse life that Bob insisted on carving out for himself.  I used him as one of my examples of someone that was not afraid to follow a path that may seem very different and disparate to others, but right for himself.  This is an aspiration I think I have been able to mainly achieve, especially since I can count a full 5 different careers that I’ve had already. (I think I’ve gone a bit overboard on that diversity thing.)

So with a bit of a sad heart and a hat tip for inspiration, I wish both “Bob” and “Mr. McCabe” the best in his retirement from one of his many careers, and I know that I’ll miss hearing his voice from half way across the country in New York City online.  I don’t know what it is about us St. Louisians and our radio hosts, but I have no one I’d rather listen to during morning drive than Bob on my iPhone 1000 miles away.  I still  wish that he wouldn’t leave the air, but he’s going to do what he wants, so that’s going to be good enough for me.

So after the end of June, 90.7FM in St. Louis won’t be the same, and neither shall I.  Thanks, Bob!  Thanks for everything!

Real Spring Is Near In New York & All Sorts Of Things Are Popping Up Blocking The Way

20130329-191454.jpg

Here’s a film crew shooting at the western entrance of Bryant Park along 6th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. They’re trying up all of the rush hour foot traffic, a mix of regular New York commuters and tourists to get the shot. (Friday, March 29, 2013 – By Rod Milam)

It was anything but a bitterly cold, short-on-daylight, wintry kind of day in New York City yesterday. On the contrary, there were signs that the real change of seasons is near. It’s true that the calendar says that it is technically spring; so, that means that the sun is up more than an hour and 47 minutes a day and the temperature is allowed to rise above median February level of “why the hell do I live here”.

But since New York is pretty far north and that the city is notoriously short on soil and flora and long on concrete and humans, the more obvious and stereotypical signs of spring are a bit delayed compared with the rest of the country and generally have to do with behaviors of the people rather than the number of buds and birds on the trees. So this means that there are only a few crocuse and tulip leaves poking their heads out above ground and more men and women poking their legs out from underneath their shorts and skirts.

But since it can’t really be considered truly warm yet, there weren’t even that many people with their limbs fully exposed. It was warm and sunny enough yesterday though for people to open their coats and jackets a bit and take part in the great New Yorker tradition of walking a few extra blocks outside before crawling down into the entrance of the warren of subway stations that we use to get back and forth to our hutches.

It was in this spirt, and with a bit of bad luck, that I found myself walking around the Midtown/Times Square/Bryant Park area of Manhattan in the early evening before I burrowed back to my outer borough of Queens to be with more normal people and my stuff. This pre-commute ended up taking much longer than I’d planned, not really because walking is slower than the MTA (that’s only mostly true), but because my location and my tactical error in not recognizing what time of year it was.

During rush hour in most places in The States, the roads get packed with cars that are stuffed with people trying to get home. In Manhattan, since most people don’t drive, while the roads ARE packed, it’s the sidewalks that are most chock-filled with commuters trying to go back to where the live, be that an apartment, house, or bar since the sidewalks are this island’s equivalent of the highways on the mainland.

With the byways normally jammed for both groups of travelers because of the sheer volume of people, the last thing anyone wants is some fairly avoidable incident on the thoroughfare to muck up the works and slow things down.

Now by an incident I don’t mean an accident. Those just happen and can’t be helped. And people who get overly worked up about those and rage would be better off chilling out a bit. (Maybe at happy hour??) What I’m talking about are people or groups so into what they’re doing that they are totally oblivious to the mayhem they’re causing for all the people around them.

The examples of these rush-disturbers that I’m thinking of for most of the country would be weekday Sunday drivers and late afternoon, minor construction workers. If you live in a city or town that has a particularly pretty bit of scenery that tends to make people not from the area slow down to a crawl to catch a better look at your local beauty while grinding the flow of traffic behind them to a near standstill, then you know exactly what a blasted weekday Sunday driver is. And if you’ve spent an extra 30-40 minutes sitting all but still on a jammed highway and figured that there must have been some horrific accident ahead of you, only to find that some road crew’s management thought that 5:15 on a Thursday evening would be the ideal time to fix the 7 potholes you’ve finally learned to dodge in the last 3 months since you take the same road every day, then you know what I mean by minor construction workers being the bane of your existence.

With Spring Break upon us in NYC, the vehicle-less Manhattan commuter has an equivalent to these nuisances found in the rest of the country. Here, these roadblocks are called “the tourist” and “the film crew” respectively.

The temporary lull in tourism that started just after the New Year’s ball dropped in Times Square is usually over by the middle/end of March. Around this time Midtown is filled once again with global travelers, presumably from locales with low skylines, carrying big shopping bags, slinging cameras, and wearing shoes set on “stroll”.

(For people with New York addresses, the “stroll” setting on our shoes is automatically, electronically disabled until we enter the boundaries of a park. Otherwise, the lowest gear is “I’ve got somewhere to be in 15 minutes” and the highest gear is called something spelled with characters found only on the top row of a keyboard when the Shift key is pushed at the same time. This is the same blocking technology that’s used to keep our restaurants from being able to sell sodas larger than 16 ounces.)

A pair of NYC tourists near Times Square taking the obligatory picture in the middle of the street/sidewalk. They, thankfully, aren't in the way of a bunch of foot traffic.

A pair of NYC tourists near Times Square taking the obligatory picture in the middle of the street/sidewalk. They, thankfully, aren’t in the way of a bunch of foot traffic.

New Yorkers know that Top Row Tourists are excellent for the city and the local economy, but we still grouse at nearly audible levels when confronted with a pack of skyward gazing guests that clearly don’t understand that these things called “sidewalks” that are rarely used in most places in the US are New York City’s major causeways. And we feel the same pain that weekend Sunday driver victims feel when we get stuck behind these groups of people. But since we’re New Yorkers and aren’t in cars with the windows rolled up, you might actually hear us complaining in a very New York fashion when we finally get by you.

I ran into a pack tourists and regular ol’ New Yorkers on 6th Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets. There were the average number skyscraper gawkers and slow walkers in the way, but since I was technically on the edge of Bryant Park, I could feel the chip in my shoes kick in and the automatic downshift in my gait. As a result, this super slow walking situation that would have normally left me itching to walk in the middle of the street and possibly vocalize my displeasure at the impediment was tempered. (Plus it was totally my fault for walking anywhere near this area at 5 o’clock.)

However, this didn’t seem to be just tourist traffic that was tying things up. Everything had come to a complete halt for at least a minute. I don’t mean “a New York minute”, which is about 20 human seconds, but I mean a full blown, honest-to-goodness minute. No matter if I’m walking in the middle of Central Park or not, if I’m not waiting in/on line for something, I shouldn’t be standing still for 60 ticks of the clock. I have things to do. Now, I’ve been in The City for just about 11 years now, so I knew that something else must have been up. So instead of getting frustrated, I just dipped out of the pile of people into the street and walked toward what appeared to be the cause of the blockage on northbound I-6th Avenue…a dude with a headset and a clipboard.

Ahhh…the old film shoot. It WAS that time of year and that kind of day. There was very good light, a lack of any form of moisture falling from the sky, and enough warmth to not require every actor to give an Oscar worthy performance just to make it look like they weren’t in the middle of getting frostbite on camera. Having your path blocked by a production assistant on a film or TV shoot in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and parts of Queens is not that unusual. It’s not something that might happen all the time unless you live in certain neighborhoods, but if you’ve lived here long enough, you’ve certainly had it happen enough that you don’t get all gaga at the prospect of seeing an actor or actress you’ve seen before at work.

Now this pothole filling situation was a big operation. There were at least 5 cameras running and a ton of trucks and trailers around the area to support the large crew. The PA on my side of the shoot was having a tough time getting the New Yorkers to stop walking through the shot and was waving his production notes like a roadside flagman in an attempt to catch the attention of the self-absorbed natives determined to get to their destinations. (The equivalent of a driver careening onto the shoulder of the highway at full speed to get around a wreck or slow traffic…something that you’ll see all the time up in the northeast and almost never in the sane midwest.)

I actually felt pretty badly for the PAs and was happy for and proud of the tourists. The New Yorkers were being too selfish in a way that I have not and will never get used to, and the visitors were behaving and taking in the nice scene of the scene making that was unfolding in front of them since they couldn’t move anyway.

All that said, I understand needing and wanting to get a good shot in lovely Bryant Park and to use the hustle and bustle of Midtown as inspiration, but do you really have to do this in the middle of rush hour?!? Yes, by experience, I know that things run long on shoots by their very nature and that slightly better conditions may exist late in the day for the lighting; but plopping this roadblock in the middle of Manhattan in the middle of a Friday evening commute was just plain bad planning at best. It’s not just the inconvenience to the pedestrians, but it was visibly stressing out the cast and crew. In the picture above, I don’t know who the actor or crew people were, but I’ll tell you that they weren’t too happy after “cut” was called. I guess that I’ll have to see if I can find out who this person was and then see the production that was made to see if all the consternation was worth the effort.

Part of a line of film crew trucks along 40th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues in Manhattan on the south side of Bryant Park.

Part of a line of film crew trucks along 40th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues in Manhattan on the south side of Bryant Park.

Now all of this might sound like complaining. It really isn’t. At the end of the day, it’s just another story and another slice of life that one might find here in New York City and part of why I’m glad that I have been able to call this place home for more than a decade. The (rightfully) perceived grouchiness you’re picking up is the result my time here and my ability to be able to fairly accurately speak and translate New Yorker English and New Yorker Life. I am very fluent in New Yorker, but I’m not, and can never be, a native speaker. Being a New Yorker doesn’t mean that you have to ditch all of what you know from whence you came, you just need to know how to translate what you knew into the local patois and practices and adapt.

And as part of the bargain for living here, I know that means that I need to swap out in my mind the sights, smells and sounds of spring of my youth in less urban St. Louis to those of my latter day über urban home of New York City. This requires me to report and view things in this new context. So where a St. Louis late March / early April would usher in plenty of flowering and budding trees, the smell of all kinds of flowers, and the chirping of birds calling out to the opening and closing of the day, this time in New York leads me naturally to talk about the emerging bands of tourists, the aroma of warm urine wafting out of the subway stations, and the increasing calls of “cut” and “action” on the streets of many neighborhood. And since I don’t mind being an early bloomer, it’s about time for me to let my legs bloom from under my sweats-covered shorts. Just because I was more than capable of dealing with this past winter’s hurricane/Nor’Easter/wind-blown highlights, doesn’t mean that I’m not more than ready to get to the business of being out and about and more than ready to ditch the all black winter cover that the indigenous New Yorker wears for most of the winter months.