A View from the Right

August 25th, 2016 (a conversation from a year ago)

We got together with our son, Hans, a few days ago. My wife and I were staying at a retreat house in northern Ohio, and Hans rode his Harley up from Columbus to visit with us. We made small talk for a while, and then Hans smirked and asked me,

 

“So, how is that ‘Black Lives Matters’ thing working out for you in Milwaukee?”

 

I knew where Hans was going with that. He must have seen the news. Since the media made the shooting at Sherman Park and the subsequent unrest look like the Apocalypse, Hans probably had the notion that all of Milwaukee had gone up in flame. I told Hans what I knew about the shooting of Sylville Smith by a Milwaukee policeman. I also told Hans what a black friend of mine had said to me about the incident.

 

The day after the shooting I called Ernie, a guy who I had worked with for over twenty years. Ernie is black. He lives near Rufus King High School, and I have been to his house a couple times, and he’s come down to Oak Creek to my place too. I asked Ernie what he thought about the cop killing Smith. Ernie is not a man to mince words or hide his true feelings.

 

Ernie told me, “Frankie, that guy was a fucking idiot. If a cop tell you to drop the gun, you drop the goddam gun!”

 

Hans heard me out. Then he told me,

 

“Dad, I think that Black Lives Matter is a hate group, just like the Ku Klux Klan.”

 

Hmmmm…that’s a stretch, but it made me start remembering things from a long time ago.

 

I was just a kid when the riots hit Milwaukee back in 1967. I grew up on 82nd Street in West Allis, back when the city was a gritty industrial town, full of factories and taverns. My neighborhood was full of people with small homes, tidy yards, conservative views, and unpronounceable Slavic surnames. My little town was inhabited by solid union members, and it was racist as all hell.

 

I don’t remember many details from the 1967 riots. I do remember, quite clearly, the feeling from that time. Even as a child, I could taste the fear and the anxiety. I remember my dad and his brothers, sitting on the porch, talking about buying guns to “keep the niggers out”. People were scared. Really scared. I remember also that my father voted for George Wallace in the next election.

 

Hans brought me back to the present. He said, “Black Lives Matter targets whites. It’s like Malcolm X.”

 

To be honest, I was a bit surprised that Hans even knew about Malcolm X. Hans often surprises me that way. He’s not a stupid man, and he spends time to think things out.

 

I told Hans, “Well, if Black Lives Matter targets whites, then why are black cops getting killed?”

 

Hans answered, “Black Lives Matter isn’t very good at what they do.”

 

I told Hans, “Okay, so why don’t I rob a liquor store or burn down a gas station? Maybe it’s because I own a home, or I have a job, or I got some skin in the game. A guy who has no stake in the system, or has no hope of ever having a stake in it, has no reason not to set the world on fire.”

 

Hans was having none of that. He’s struggled mightily since he came home from the Iraq War. He’s been at times both unemployed and homeless. He told me,

 

“There are jobs out there. I found one. I had to move from Texas to Ohio, but I found work. These guys burning stores can find work too.”

 

We moved on to other topics.

 

 

 

 

 

See You in Court

August 24th, 2017

On Thursday I went to the office of Voces de la Frontera to pick up a guy in order to drive him to the Milwaukee County Courthouse. I walked into the office and met my passenger, Marcos. He’s a short man (even shorter than me), and he wears a baseball cap to hide his bald spot, and maybe to make him look a bit taller. Marcos and I made the fifteen minute drive from Voces to the County Courthouse so that he could be present for his appointment in the small claims court. We had to wait a little while for the courtroom to open at 1:30. After that, things went quickly. Marcos met a lawyer, signed some papers, and we were out of there. I don’t know why Marcos had to be in the small claims court. It’s none of my business. I was just the court accompaniment guy.

I do CA (Court Accompaniment) for the New Sanctuary Movement, which is a group that works in conjunction with Voces de la Frontera, which is a local organization that promotes the rights of workers and immigrants. CA is a program in which a volunteer escorts an immigrant to a court appearance. It might be a court appearance in Milwaukee, or in Waukesha, or in Racine, or even in Chicago. The volunteer goes along with the immigrant to wherever he or she needs to go. The volunteer does not act as a lawyer or as an interpreter. The volunteer is just there.

Why? Why should a volunteer tag along with an immigrant to a court appearance? There are couple reasons. First, the immigrant might just need a ride to the courthouse. That happens. Second, the immigrant may not be fluent in English, and the volunteer might be able to give some guidance. Third, and perhaps most important, the immigrant might be scared shitless about going into a courthouse alone. In the present political climate, an immigrant, legal or otherwise, is very leery about going places where there are lots of cops. Considering that David Clarke is Sheriff of Milwaukee County, and that Clarke wholeheartedly supports President Trump’s draconian immigration policies, these people have good reason to be concerned.

The fact is that the New Sanctuary Movement wants some legitimate-looking white guy (or woman) to ride shotgun with these Latino immigrants.  As some people might notice, I don’t look particularly respectable, but I am available for the job. Somehow, I provide a modicum of safety and comfort to the people that I escort. If trouble occurs, is there much that I can do? Not really. I can report back to the folks at Voces. Otherwise, I am just providing moral support to the people that need to be in the courtroom. Maybe that is enough.

The immigrants have to go to court for a variety of reasons. I took one woman to court in Racine because she had been busted three times for driving without a license. Typically, the question arises as to why this person would have no license.

The answer probably is: she can’t get a license.  Only twelve states in the Union allow an undocumented person to get drivers licenses. Wisconsin is not one of those states. In this state, we would prefer that a person who is unable to prove that they are a legal resident or a U.S. citizen be denied a license. That way we can bust the person for driving without a license, and then bitch that those undocumented immigrants are all lawbreakers. An undocumented person who is denied a license will probably still drive. They still need to get to work. They still need to care for their families. With our laws, we just create a Catch-22 for immigrants, in order to make their lives more difficult.

When I go to court with people, I spend time waiting around. I have time to notice things. One thing that I have seen is that most the folks appearing in court are people of color. Why is that? Back in April, when I got arrested for civil disobedience in Las Vegas, I saw the same sort of thing. Most of the people that were in the jail with me were black or Latino. Is this because blacks and Latinos are more likely to commit crimes than white folks? Somehow, I doubt that. Is it because blacks and Latinos are more likely to get pulled over by the police? That seems more plausible. Are my observations proof of racism? No, but they suggest that something is very wrong with the picture.

I volunteer as a CA because I want to make the lives of immigrants slightly less difficult. Maybe I can make things just a bit easier for them. Maybe I can show them that somebody cares.

 

 

Two Minutes for Ernie

August 19th, 2017

Ernie’s funeral was held at the Victory Missionary Baptist Church on the corner of Center and Teutonia on the north side of Milwaukee. I had never been to that church before. If a person wasn’t looking closely, he wouldn’t even recognize it as a church. It’s a rectangular cinder block building, without a steeple or stain glass windows. Of course, the outside of a church really isn’t that important. What’s inside is what makes the difference.

When Karin and I arrived, the church was already packed with people. Ushers were handing out programs and fans to the people in the pews. Once the service started, there was a Scripture reading, and then a prayer led by one of the ministers. The choir sang a selection of Gospel songs. A woman went up to the lectern and read from some of the sympathy cards that the family had received.

Then it was time for remarks.

The pastor took some time to explain how remarks were to be made. He said,

“I am under instruction from the family. I do NOT want to come to the end of this service, and then be told that I did not follow instructions.”

Brief laughter.

“The family requests that six people make remarks: three from Con-way (Ernie’s work place), and three from other family members or friends. Each person may speak for two minutes. We will start with Ernie’s coworkers from Con-way. Please come up to the front.”

Nobody moved.

Karin nudged me hard, and indicated that I should get up there and say something. I walked toward the podium. As I stood in front of the microphone, the pastor asked if any other Con-way employees would like to come up to the front of the church.

Nobody moved.

I asked the pastor, “So, does that mean I get six minutes?”

“No, no, no”, he said quickly. “You only get two.”

Brief laughter.

I started to speak.

” I worked with Ernie for over twenty years.”

“He was the hardest worker that I have ever met.”

“He was the most honest man that I ever met. ”

“Ernie had a big heart.”

I paused.

“I loved him.”

I could feel my throat getting tight.

“I miss him.”

My voice trembled.

“This hurts.”

I looked down at the lectern. What else is there to say? My eyes were wet.

“I still love him.”

There were a couple “Amens”.

I walked back to my seat.

I didn’t need two minutes.

Syrian Bass

August 14th, 2017

The bass guitar had been leaning on its stand for months. I used to play guitar with our youngest son, Stefan, but he got busy with work and his girlfriend. Our jam sessions ended. It’s no fun playing bass by yourself. It’s remarkably boring. Bass lines are essential, but they tend to be rather repetitive.

On Monday afternoons I visit some Syrian refugees, and I teach the kids English for an hour. Generally, I have six children huddled around me. I don’t want to bore them, so I try to find ways to keep them interested. The children are usually motivated to read and write, and I want to keep it that way.

I looked at the bass, and decided that I would bring that along with me when I visited the refugees. I thought about taking the amplifier with me too, but that felt like pushing my luck.  I dusted off the guitar, and I struggled to remember a few simple tunes. I didn’t need many. Three or four riffs would be sufficient.

On Monday I rang the doorbell at the Syrians’ house. One of the kids opened the door for me and said, “Hi.” Her eyes got wide when she saw the guitar.

I walked into the living room. Um Hussein was there in her hijab and dark robe. She gave me a funny look when she saw the bass.

I told the kids, “Let’s go upstairs and play some music.” They all followed me up the narrow, winding staircase to the second floor of the house.

I sat down in a chair. The children were all around me.  I started to play, and they all got quiet. I plucked the strings and fumbled through a rendition of “Sunshine of Your Love” from Cream. I had their attention, so I tried another song. It was something older than the first piece.

I asked them, “Did you like that one?”

They nodded.

“Do you know what that song is called?”

They all shook their heads.

“That song is called ‘Stand By Me’. Do you know what that means?”

More head shaking.

I stood up and I turned to Amar. I said, “Amar, come here, right next to me.”

He did.

“If I am close to you like this, what am I doing?’

He thought for a moment and replied, “Stand by me!”

“Right. ‘Stand by me’ means that somebody is near you. That person is with you when you are in trouble or you need help.”

Amar thought a bit, and then his eyes lit up. “Yeah. Right.”

I called out, “Okay, somebody write this on the board: The song is called ‘Stand by Me’!”

Nisrin grabbed a marker and started to write that out.

“Okay, now somebody tell me about this guitar!”

Nizar said, “It is orange and brown.”

“Is it really?”

“Yes!”

“Okay, then you write that on the board.”

After he finished writing, Yasmin said, “I want to play!”

“Okay, sit down, let’s do it.”

It seemed like they all wanted to play at the same time. I convinced them to take turns. The guitar was really too big for them. Most of the kids had to hold the bass in their laps. Some of them could barely reach across the guitar neck.

I tried to explain the names of the strings.

“The bass strings are E, A, D, and C.”

Ibrahim said, “Yes! A, B, C, D!”

“Uh, no, not really. They go from top to bottom: E, A, D, C.”

Ibrahim looked at me confused. “Not A, B, C, D?”

“No, well, never mind. That’s not so important. Ibrahim, pluck the E string. Pull here.”

He pulled it and the string gave a deep, mellow note.

“I asked him. “Was that a high note or a low note?”

“Low?”

“Yes! Right! Now pull on the C string. What kind of sound is that? High or low?”

“High!”

“Right! Good job!”

We talked about the different parts of the guitar. We talked about whether it was quiet or loud. It could be both. We tried out new words in English.

I showed them how to play a twelve bar. I explained that it was the blues. Blues music.

Nizar shouted, “No! Rock music! I like rock music!”

That boy is well on his way to becoming an American.

Nada brought me up some hot tea.

“Nada, do you want to try?’

Nada was shy. She shrugged and shook her head. “No. I don’t want to.”

“It’s okay. You don’t have to play.”

All the other children tried to play the guitar and/or write something about it. I finished up by playing the bass line from “Hey Joe”.

You can’t go wrong with some Jimi Hendrix.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jim’s Own Little World

August 22nd, 2017

Jim was on the phone. He was having a heated argument with somebody. Jim was sitting in a wheelchair in the lobby of the VA hospital. His walker was next to him. The telephone was a landline on the wall. I might not have noticed him at all, except that he glanced up at me as I was walking by, and he said loudly,

“Frank, wait! Don’t go! Tell Sister to come over here!”

Jim was still on the phone, obviously agitated. He told the person on other end of the line to wait, because he wanted to speak with me and Sister Ann. Apparently, the person conversing with Jim wanted to know who we were, and Jim shouted,

“They’re religious people!”

I had just arrived at the hospital. It was a Tuesday evening, and most every Tuesday evening I join up with a small group of people from the American Legion to visit the vets in the psychiatric ward on the third floor of the building. The other folks were already there, including Sister Ann Catherine. Sister A. C. had served as a nurse in a refugee camp in Cambodia back in the 1970’s, when the Khmer Rouge was still in business. She had been there during “Killing Fields” timeframe. Sister A. C. had a long history of being actively concerned with veterans, especially Vietnam vets.

Sister Ann Catherine walked over to where I was. Jim tried to speak to us, and simultaneously listen to the person on the line. That didn’t work out very well. He became upset, and he finally told the individual on the phone that he couldn’t carry on two conversations at once. He promptly hung up.

I’ve known Jim for several months. He’s been in and out of the psych. ward repeatedly. He and I have had a number of long conversations. We’ve talked about his time on Vietnam. We’ve talked about Hans’ experiences in Iraq. We’ve talked about his days of smuggling drugs into the U.S., back in the 1980’s. Jim is thin and frail. He has longish hair that is going grey. He has a Sam Elliott style moustache. His voice is a bit high-pitched, especially when he is excited.

Jim was excited, and not in a good way. Something was obviously very wrong. Since Sister A.C. and I were standing next to him, he was going to tell us all about it. He began his story:

“You wouldn’t believe what all happened to me today! I was at the airport and I got mugged! I had a thousand dollars in my pocket and it got stolen. I was on my way to Costa Rica. I have friends there. Now I’m not going anywhere!”

Sister Ann Catherine asked him, “When you got mugged, did they take your passport too?”

Jim nodded. Then he went on, “I have friends in Costa Rica. The president of Costa Rica is a friend of mine. They could send me money, but I don’t want to bother them with that. And it’s hard to send money to a different country. You know?”

Sister A.C. answered, “Oh yes, that is difficult.”

Jim kept going, “I went back to my hotel, where I was staying. Guess what? I found my wallet in my room, but it was empty! I had five hundred dollars in that wallet!”

Sister A.C. said, “Oh my.”

The rant continued. Jim said, “Now I don’t have any money, and I don’t have a place to stay any more. The VA won’t help me. A lady here offered to get me a cab to take me to a shelter, but they are all full now. There is another place where I can get a cot for the night, but the police have to take me there.”

“Oh my, that’s awful”, said Sister Ann.

“I don’t even have money to eat!” yelled Jim. He looked at the nun, and asked, “Can you at least give me some money so I can get something to eat?”

Sister Ann was suddenly less sympathetic. “Jim, look at me. I don’t have any money on me. I don’t even have any pockets. I don’t have anything to give you.”

At that point, I expected Jim to hit on me for some cash. He didn’t. He had forgotten all about the money.

Instead, he said, “I got nothing to live for…well, except for my children. I might as well just kill myself. I don’t like to swear, except to make a point. But this bullshit!”

Sister Ann Catherine looked around and saw that the rest of the group had left for the psych. ward. She said, “Jim, I have to go upstairs now.” She turned and walked away.

It was just Jim and me. He slowly got up from the wheelchair.

“This is bullshit. The VA isn’t helping me. I got a sharp knife. Maybe I’ll use it. Then they’ll notice.”

He grabbed his walker, turned away from me, and left me standing next to the phone. He was completely unaware that I was there.

I took the elevator to the third floor. I went into the break room, where Sister Ann and the other people were putting out snacks for the patients.

I found one of the people working on the floor. This guy is always there when we come to visit, and he often handles patients that get unruly.

I said to him, “Hey, I need to ask you something.”

“Sure, what do you want?’

I told him, “When I was in the lobby, I was listening to Jim. He’s been up here a few times. You probably remember him. He seemed really upset, and he was talking about hurting himself.”

“Okay.”

“So, do we need to do something?”

The guy shook his head and told me, “I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, well, I thought that I should tell somebody.”

“You did. Like I said, I wouldn’t worry about it.”

do worry about it. Jim probably was just being dramatic, but who knows? The guy in the ward knows Jim. He’s worked with him, so he has a better idea of how seriously to take the man. It’s very possible that Jim was saying those things to me just so he could get sent back to the third floor. I don’t know. When I left the hospital later on, I didn’t see Jim anywhere.

I have been thinking a lot about all that Jim told us. It makes my head hurt. It all sounded illogical and disjointed. I don’t think he was trying to hustle us, because if he was, he would have asked me for some cash. I never spoke while he talked. I was trying to figure out what he actually wanted, but I couldn’t get a handle on it.

Maybe he just wanted somebody to listen to him. I don’t know.

I don’t think that Jim was lying  to Sister Ann Catherine and myself. I think that he really and truly believed everything that he told us. That terrifies me. I can deal with a hustler. I can deal with a bullshitter. A liar may be twisted, but he is still shares my version of reality. A man like Jim is sometimes living in his own separate universe, and that freaks me out. I wrestle with trying to understand what is fact and what is fantasy in Jim’s world. I can’t figure it out, because for Jim all of it is real. All of it.

How does a person get to that place? How does he come back? Does he come back? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zen and the Hakenkreuz

Do you know any Nazis? I do, or rather I did. My father-in-law, Max, was a German soldier during World War II. There was a swastika on his Luftwaffe uniform. By most standards he qualified as a Nazi, at least during his time in service.

Was Max ever a fire-breathing, Jew-hating, Indiana Jones film kind of Nazi? I doubt it. I don’t know what kind of man Max was during the war, but he was a decent and generous person when I met him in 1983. Max got drafted in 1938 and was thrown into a nightmare that lasted for seven years. Max survived. He was severely wounded in the war, and he never saw his home again. He rebuilt his shattered life as best he could. I never heard Max speak against anybody because of their race, religion, or nationality. On the other hand, I never got the impression that he was ashamed of his actions during the war. To his dying day he believed that he had been defending Deutschland.

I look at the pictures of the Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, and I compare them with what I remember of Max. These guys are a whole different breed. Max was forced to participate in evil. These men want to participate. I don’t think that Max ever really bought all the Nazi propaganda. These people in Charlottesville are true believers. Max just wanted to escape from a living hell. The boys in Virginia are eager to create one.

What does Zen have to do with any of this? Plenty.

Zen teaches that all things change, that everything is transient. In some regards this teaching is melancholy, because it says that all the things we love will pass away. On the other hand, it is a profoundly hopeful viewpoint, because it says that things don’t have to stay screwed up. Things can change. In fact, things must change.

This implies that these raving lunatics in Charlottesville, who marched around while carrying tiki torches and chanting “Blood and soil!” at night on a college campus, could possibly change their minds. Is it likely? Maybe not. However, it is possible. Some of these people might stop hating. They might eventually drop their anger. I suspect that, after the war ended, Max changed. Max didn’t end up bitter and mean. These new Nazis might not end up that way either.

Zen tells us that suffering is due to attachment. It is rather obvious that the folks who marched in Charlotte have some rather intense attachments. Did the counter-protesters have any attachments? I think so. Do I? Oh yeah.

As a case in point, think about how a person may react to seeing a swastika. In ages past, the swastika was a benign religious symbol. For the last century it is represented pure evil. In German the swastika is called a “Hakenkreuz”, a “hooked cross”. That’s all it really is. It’s just a crooked cross. It can mean everything, or it can mean nothing. A Nazi flag can be a symbol of hate, or can just be a rag fluttering in the wind. We decide whether things have meaning and power.

Zen tells us that all people have Buddha nature, an inherent holiness and innate love. Most of the people demonstrating at Charlottesville hid their Buddha nature very well, but they still have it. My job is to recognize that they have it. I don’t need to sympathize with them, or agree with them, or like them. However, I need to acknowledge that each Nazi at that rally has the potential to become a bodhisattva, and I have no right to condemn them and completely write them off.

At the end of practice we always recite The Four Great Vows. We promise to save all sentient beings. Neo-Nazis are sentient beings. I am required to save them, or at least to try. That means that I have clean up my own act first. I have to see clearly, and eliminate hate and resentment from my own heart. Then, somehow, I need to see the suffering in these people. They truly are suffering. They are already in a hell of their own making.  I need to know that, and I need to act accordingly, with whatever compassion I can muster.

 

 

Another Senseless Act

August 16th, 2017

A few minutes ago, I was walking Shocky, our daughter’s border collie. Shocky and I both need exercise, so I like to walk with her down Oakwood Road, as far as the railroad tracks, and then home again. That is about a two mile walk, and it takes us the better part of an hour to accomplish.

Today Shocky was not feeling up to par, and she needed to stop often to relieve herself. I decided that we would turn around early. We halted shortly after we turned back toward home. I was watching Shocky take care of her business. When she was done I looked up ahead just in time to see a nearly-full bottle of Sprite flying toward me. The passenger in an oncoming vehicle had tossed it at us. The bottle skidded across the pavement, ricocheted off my sandal, and bounced into the ditch next to me. I never saw the person in the car, and I was barely even aware that a car had whizzed by me. It was kind of a low-tech drive by. I’m not sure if the thrower had intended to hit me or the dog. I don’t think I will ever know.

Now that Shocky and I are at home again, I wonder that that incident was all about. I suspect there were two knuckleheads in that car. The passenger probably said,

“Hey, Dude, I bet I can hit that dog with the Sprite!”

“No way. You’ll never hit her.”

“Here, Man!  Watch this!”

Or maybe, the passenger in the car just launched the bottle on a whim. He saw the dog and me, and tried to find our strike zone. Who knows?

Sheer idiocy. Nobody got hurt, but the act was still remarkably stupid.

There have been a large number of senseless acts in the news recently. Events that simply defy explanation.  Are humans just irrational? Is that what it comes down to?