Sunday, October 30, 2016

263. The Golden Age of Profanity, and Do We Have a Right to Swear?

         This post is about profanity.  Not New York profanity, because -- in spite of provocations like jack hammers, traffic jams, subway delays, jolting buses, and construction obstacles -- New Yorkers don't swear any more (or any less) than other people, nor are their oaths any different.  Yet what I confess here may cost me some friendships, since I'm going to reveal my dark heart and foul tongue.  But first of all, what is profanity?  There’s no easy, all-embracing answer, since opinions vary with time and place.  The word itself is a noun formed from the adjective profane, which comes via Old French from the Latin profanare, “to desecrate, render unholy, violate,” and from profanus, “unholy, not consecrated,” which in turn comes from pro fano, meaning “in front of the temple” -- in other words outside it, secular, or desecrating what is holy. 

         Yet today we use the word “profanity” to indicate indecorous language, language that is obscene and therefore forbidden; it may or may not be blasphemous or sacrilegious.  Profane language today can be blasphemous, using God’s name in vain (a violation of the Third Commandment), or obscene, often using certain common four-letter (and sometimes five-letter) English words that designate the bodily functions of sex and excretion.  Freud long ago observed that the close proximity of our organs of sex and excretion has caused humanity a huge deal of woe, and he was probably right.

         What brought this subject to mind, where it has probably been lurking long since, is a review in the New York Times of October 2, 2016, of two new books on the subject: Benjamin K. Bergen, What the F: What Swearing Reveals about Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves (Basic Books, 271 pp.), and Michael Adams, In Praise of Profanity (Oxford University Press, 253 pp.).  I have perused neither of these new arrivals, but note that the first sounds learned and analytical, whereas the second sounds like a joyful celebration of our use of dirty words.  The Times reviewer, Josh Lambert, salutes Benjamin Bergen’s treatment of the subject, but notes that it “saps a little of the joy out of dirty words.”  Michael Adams’s book, on the other hand, catalogs the many benefits of cursing a blue streak.  (Why “blue,” by the way?  Why not red or yellow or black?  But let’s not digress.)  He observes that today is a wonderful time to swear, involving little risk while letting one feel brave and subversive.  The 21st century in America is – for the moment, since these things can change – the Golden Age of Profanity.

         I’m glad to hear it, because as far back as I can remember, I have cursed.  Not loudly, in public, but muttering sotto voce, while swearing resoundingly in private.  Given my soft-spoken and temperate public manner, my effusions of sweetness and light, my friends probably don’t even suspect the raging curses and resonant profanities of my private moments.  What sets me off?  For the most part, trivia: a slight stumble, a misbehaving computer, something misplaced and urgently needed, something dropped on the floor, a junk phone call or even a welcome one at an inopportune moment: in short, the minor mishaps and trivial contretemps of daily living, which most people dismiss with a shrug.  And what exactly do I say?  (Here all delicate and easily affronted viewers should tune out.)  Expletives like these:

·      Shit!  A thousand times shit!
·      God shit-ass damn!
·      Holy fuck.
·      Oh puke! 
·      You blatant prick, shut up!  (To the phone.)
·      You goddam piece of shit!  (To my computer.)
·      Jesus H. Christ!  (No idea what the H stands for.)
·      Holy turd!
·      You filthy cocksucker!  (Usually to some inanimate object.)

         So here are Christian and scatological terms in a feisty mix.  Certainly I’m no stranger to the seven dirty words banned from radio and television: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, montherfucker, tits.  But if once, momentarily vexed in my childhood, I called a friend as “a saber-toothed tiger,” I confess that my arsenal of expletives today is sadly deficient in originality.  And when a friend, by chance overhearing a few of my utterances, thought he discerned a note of conscious and intentional blasphemy, I replied that in all honesty I was simply using the swear wordsI had grown up hearing all around me – not in my family, but on the playground, at school, and on the street -- without any thought of intentional blasphemy or sacrilege. 

         What would be a good example of truly original profanity?  There are plenty in Shakespeare, but the most memorable one that I know of is an outburst mouthed in King Lear by Kent, who to his face calls another character

Now that is swearing --  good, earthy, gutsy profanity.  While the familiar “son of a bitch,” richly renewed, is buried in there, the whole spiel reeks of a lurid originality that few of us today can match.  Indeed, our current vocabulary is by comparison tepid and threadbare.  (Why the blue print, by the way?  I have no idea.  My computer's idea.)

         Once, on the phone, while talking to a representative of my health care plan, I in frustration muttered a soft “Jesus Christ!”  “There’s no need for profanity,” the representative officiously announced, which provoked in me a rare burst of fury.  I almost said to him, “Sir, that comment was not meant for your ears, but since you heard it and saw fit to respond, please be advised that if I want to use such language, I fucking well will!”  I squelched the impulse to say it, but ever since have regretted that I didn't.  A unique incident in my experience that revealed to me my passionate belief that I have the right to swear as I please.  

          (A side note: I have almost never cursed in the state of Indiana.  I have family and friends there, and they and Hoosiers generally are so welcoming, so decent, and so tolerant of this slightly depraved New Yorker venturing in their midst, that I feel no need or desire even sotto voce to curse.)

         But do I have the right to swear?  Back in 1999 I heard of the arrest of a young man in Michigan who, because his canoe capsized, soaking him, and because his buddies then guffawed, spouted a torrent of oaths.  A mother canoeing with her two young children was shocked at hearing him and covered the ears of one child, but couldn’t protect the other from this verbal assault.  A sheriff’s deputy on patrol nearby ticketed the offender for a misdemeanor under an old law of 1913 and later testified that the profanity could be heard a quarter of a mile away.  Though the ACLU rushed to the defendant’s rescue, the "cussing canoeist" was convicted and could have served 90 days in jail.  Such language, the prosecutor said, would be tolerated "maybe in New York City, but not in Standish, Michigan."  But in 2002 the Michigan appeals court overturned the 1913 law, saying that it violated the First Amendment.  Be that as it may, I would have gladly consoled the defendant by saying that, there but for the grace of You Know Who, went me.  The "curser" (as his buddies at work termed him) had no intention of offending others in public, but was prompted by a sudden unforeseen mishap.  A quick bit of online research shows that these cases, and the issues they raise, are quite common.

         While I vigorously affirm my right (except in Indiana) to swear, I also confess that, when provoked by some trivial occurrence, my profanity is just plain stupid and childish.  To counter or alleviate it, I have three stratagems.

1.    Squelch it.  Often when, provoked by the misbehavior of some trivial object, a torrent of expletives is about to burst from my mouth, I stifle the torrent and say instead, reprovingly, “Why you naughty little recalcitrant object!”  Tame, yes, and perhaps insipid, but a stab at minimal gentility. 

2.    Cancel it out.  On the advice of a Catholic friend, to eliminate an unintended blasphemy I say, “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  And believe me, I say it a lot.

3.    Smother it in sentiment.  This, at least, shows a little originality.  When a screeching “Fuck you!” blasts forth (at some object, not a person), I soften and sentimentalize it by singing “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you…” to the tune of “Sweetheart, sweetheart, sweetheart,” the celebrated duet sung by Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in the 1937 film Maytime, a love story so lyrically and drippingly sentimental that the mere thought of it steeps me in a cloyingly sweet stink of apple blossoms:

Sweetheart, sweetheart, sweetheart,
Will you remember me ever
Will you remember this day
When we were happy in May …

Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you
I’ll love you black and blue
I won’t remember this day
When we were so gaga in May …

Or something of the sort, since my lyrics, determinedly silly and offensive, change from day to day.  Not great poetry, but it serves a purpose.

         Of course the standards of gentility, and therefore of profanity, have undergone transformations throughout the centuries, with the middle and ruling classes much concerned with such matters, and the working class much less so.  Gosh and golly are softenings of God, and geeze and gee surely stem from Jesus.  Copulate and penis are 16th-century stand-ins for coarser (i.e., working-class) terms.  White meat and dark meat, commonly used even today when carving or serving poultry at the table, were coined to avoid such vulgarisms as breast and leg.  And we habitually use restroom for a room that has little to do with repose.  Victorian mores shunned any direct reference to the physical.  As a friend once informed me, back in those genteel days sweat was not to be applied to humans.  “Animals sweat,” went the rule, “people perspire, and young ladies glow.”

         Just in my own time, things have changed.  When Clark Gable, near the end of the 1939 film Gone with the Wind, uttered the forbidden word damn – “Frankly, my dear,” he tells Vivien Leigh, “I don’t give a damn!” -- it had resonance.  But in the 1974 film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the fast-talking waitress Flo, played brilliantly by the actress Diane Ladd, utters reams of profanities that fly by the audience’s ears with the speed of lightning, but register nonetheless as profane.  And for that gritty role Ms. Ladd got an award for best supporting actress.

         If we laugh at the euphemisms of past generations, someday future generations will laugh at ours.  Even in our supposedly liberated age – the Golden Age of Profanity, when almost anything goes – some words are forbidden.  Feminists have compelled us to avoid the “c-word,” designating female genitalia, and our growing ethnic sensitivity has rendered the “n-word” taboo, except when spoken by African Americans among themselves.  And if shit and perhaps fuck are slowly winning acceptance, the free use of fart and cocksucker still distresses some.  Political correctness vs. honest candor is an ongoing war, and gentility still, on occasion, raises its formidable head.  Which makes our language interesting, and thrusts upon us the eternal challenge of knowing when, and when not, to use certain juicy but forbidden words.  But let’s face it, using them is fun.

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          My poems:  For five acceptable poems, click here and scroll down.  To avoid five terrible poems, don't click here.  For my poem "The Other," inspired by the Orlando massacre, click here.

          My books:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), my historical novel about a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client, is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

        Coming soon:  The marvels to be found on the north shore of Staten Island, and maybe a post on New York moments --  those sudden sights and encounters that reveal the essence of the city, perhaps supplemented by the strange deaths possible in New York.

         ©   2016   Clifford Browder


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

262. Halloween and Related Horrors

Since Halloween is close upon us, here is a reprint of a 2012 post about Halloween and related matters (ch. 38 in my book, No Place for Normal: New York).

31. Of Spooks, Ghouls, Mummies, and Related Horror

         It’s spook time, and I don't mean the election.  A candy store near my building features witches in orange and black in its window, and a pharmacy offers a host of eerie items: skulls, bones, skeletons, a severed arm (fake, of course; there are limits), a bat, huge spiders and their webs, a black cat, and a vulture that looks hungry.  (Not the best display for an outfit dispensing medicines meant to help and heal, but they like to be seasonal.)  So Halloween must be in the offing.

                  But I won't confine myself to the holiday.  This post's subject and the next will be our ambiguous attitude toward death and the dead, a vast subject that, given the many associations and scraps of history dancing in my head, will probably spill out in all directions.  But we'll start with Halloween.

         For most of us, Halloween means ghosts and witches and skeletons, trick-or-treating, costumes, jack-o’-lanterns, and innocent or not-so-innocent pranks  – a completely secular event.  But the name “Halloween” is a contraction of All Hallows’ Eve, referring to the Christian feast of All Hallows on November 1, and Halloween, celebrated on October 31, has both pagan and Christian antecedents.  It has been traced all the way back to the late-autumn Celtic festival of Samhain, when the physical and supernatural worlds were closest; the souls of the dead were thought to revisit their homes, and bonfires were built to ward their spirits off.

         The Christian holy day of All Saints’ Day, November 1, was a time for honoring the saints and praying for the dead, who until this day were thought to still wander the earth prior to reaching heaven or the alternative.  But this was also the last chance for the dead to wreak vengeance on their enemies before entering the next world, so to avoid being recognized by them (hmm… they must have felt guilty about something), people disguised themselves by wearing masks and costumes: the beginning of Halloween costumes.  So are the dead to be welcomed and prayed for, or dreaded and avoided?  Both, it seems.  Which shows, I think, a profound ambivalence.

         As for jack-o’lanterns, they developed out of the custom in Scotland and Ireland of carving turnips into lanterns to ward off evil spirits.  Coming to this country, immigrants from those countries used the native pumpkin instead, whose size and softness made it much easier to carve.  The name itself probably comes from an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack who outwitted the Devil but after his death, being barred from both heaven and hell, was doomed to wandering the earth with an ember to light his way.

         Children’s trick-or-treating came later, being first recorded in North America in a Canadian newspaper of 1911.  Wikipedia dates the first use of the term in the U.S. from 1934, but I can testify that by then all the kids in my middle-class Chicago suburb were ringing neighbors’ doorbells in hopes of goodies, though usually not in costume, without any thought of pioneering a new Halloween custom; as far as we were concerned, this is how it had always been, though we were much more into treats than tricks. (Still, my father, fearing vandalism, always wired the gates to our backyard shut, to keep out devilish intruders of whatever species or persuasion.)  By then, too, the costumes that some people donned were not confined to the eerie stuff (ghosts, skeletons, witches, and such), but included just about anyone or anything you could think of.  All of which shows how a holiday once concerned with praying for departed souls and warding off evil spirits has become, in the U.S. today, a children’s fun fest spiced with just a touch of the eerie.

         South of the border things are just a bit different.  Related to Halloween in Mexico is the Day of the Dead (el Dia de los Muertos), celebrated on November 1, a national holiday when people gather to remember and pray for deceased friends and family.  Altars are built in homes and cemeteries, and offerings are made of sugar and chocolate skulls, and bread often in the shape of a skull and decorated with white frosting to resemble twisted bones.  Photos and memorabilia are also placed there, in hopes of encouraging visits by the dead, so they can hear the prayers and comments of the living. 

         Associated with the Day of the Dead is the la Catrina,the Grande Dame of Death, a skeleton presented as an elegant woman with a fancy hat.  This beloved figure of Mexican folk art first appeared in 1910 as an etching by the printmaker José Guadalupe Posada, but can be linked to Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of the dead.  She satirizes high society, but also shows how Mexicans bring death close to them and celebrate the joy of life in the very face of its opposite.  During my two trips to Mexico long ago I never encountered her (wrong season), but photos of her are unforgettable, reminding us how tame our Halloween images are in comparison.  And in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City I saw many Aztec sculptures of gods adorned with human bones and skulls.  (They were a cheery bunch, those human-sacrificing Aztecs.)  Obviously, we mortals have many ways of facing – and facing down – death.

         All right, Mexico and la Catrina are pretty far removed from New York, the alleged subject of my blog, but I warned you that I might stray far and wide.  So to get back to the Apple, how about the doctors’ riot of 1788?  No, the doctors didn’t riot; in fact, they came close to being lynched. 

         Since the Renaissance medical science had been dissecting bodies so as to better understand anatomy, as evidenced by a Rembrandt painting of 1632.  But in England, Scotland, and the thirteen colonies that became the United States, there 
was strong popular feeling against the practice.  Fueling this feeling was the medical schools’ constant need for fresh bodies, which led them to snatch freshly buried 

bodies from graveyards.  During the Revolution, battlefields provided a good supply of unclaimed bodies, but with the coming of peace the need for more bodies intensified.  In New York the students at the city’s only medical school, Columbia College, raided the Negroes Burial Ground, where both slaves and freedmen were buried, but also the graves of paupers in Potters’ Field, while usually – but not always – respecting the graves of those “most entitled to respect.”  So great was the demand for bodies that a new occupation appeared, the professional body snatcher, or resurrectionist, whom the medical schools could hire.  Aware of the risks, grieving families often hired guards to watch over the grave of a loved one at night for two weeks following burial, since after that the bodies would be too decomposed for purposes of dissection.  The authorities were certainly aware of the activities of body snatchers, whether professional or amateur, but probably chose to look the other way, as long as it was all done discreetly and confined to the graves of the lowly, but by the late 1780s trouble was brewing.

         Then, in April 1788, the storm broke.  Accounts differ, but it seems that a group of boys playing outside the dissection room of City Hospital saw a severed human arm hung up to dry in a window, and rushed off to tell their elders.  An angry mob quickly gathered and surrounded the hospital, then broke in and, finding three fresh bodies there, one boiling in a kettle, destroyed everything in sight, including valuable specimens collected over many years, as well as surgical instruments.  Most of the doctors and students had escaped, but one doctor remained with three medical students, and only the sheriff’s removing them to the city jail for their own protection saved them from being lynched. 

         The mobs’ anger did not subside overnight, and many doctors found it convenient to take a sudden vacation out of town.  The governor called out the militia, but the mob disarmed some of them and attacked Columbia College, destroying more medical specimens and instruments.  Alexander Hamilton tried in vain to calm them, and John Jay (a future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) was hit by a rock and knocked unconscious.  That evening the mob threatened the jail, where the doctor and students were still lodged.  When the rioters hurled bricks and rocks at the militia, the soldiers finally opened fire, killing eight and wounding many more.  Those doctors still in town treated the wounded, and the rioters dispersed the next morning, thus ending the new nation’s first recorded riot. 

         Some weeks later the New York legislature passed a law permitting the dissection of hanged criminals.  Unfortunately, there were never enough of them, so  resurrectionists and their opponents would persist well into the next century, often provoking (your choice) picturesque or grisly incidents, as my next post will show. 

         Of course body snatching is now a thing of the past, is it not?  Wrong!  In 2005 an ex-dentist in Fort Lee, New Jersey, was arrested for obtaining bodies from funeral homes in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania with forged consent documents, and then selling bones, organs, skin, and other body parts to legitimate medical companies and tissue banks for resale to hospitals, which needed them for transplants.  They did six or seven extractions a day, a male nurse involved in the operation later confessed; it took 45 minutes for the bones, and another 15 for skin, arms, thighs, and belly.  But why get involved in such a gruesome business?  Because, the nurse explained, he went from earning $50,000 a year as a nurse to $185,000 as a "cutter."  Yes, this illegal business is flourishing throughout our fair land, as a quick search for "body snatching" on the Internet will quickly demonstrate.  I myself plan to be cremated, but this doesn't guarantee a thing; so did the people whose bodies were stolen by the dentist and his fellow ghouls.

         Happy Halloween!

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          My poems:  For five acceptable poems, click here and scroll down.  To avoid five terrible poems, don't click here.  For my poem "The Other," inspired by the Orlando massacre, click here.

          My books:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), my historical novel about a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client, is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

      Coming soon:  Profanity and me.  Do we have a right to swear in public, within the hearing of little children and other delicate souls?  How I cope with my own indiscretions.

      ©   2016   Clifford Browder

Sunday, October 23, 2016

261. Scavenging in New York

         Recently, on the same day a bomb exploded under a dumpster on West 23rd Street in Chelsea, two men were seen on a security camera picking up a discarded bag on West 27th Street; finding a pressure cooker inside, they removed it, left it on the street, and went off with the bag.  In light of the bombing that same day in Chelsea, the authorities wanted to find the men and question them.  It turned out that they were two Egyptian visitors who simply liked the bag and scavenged it, but in so doing they may have defused a second bomb.

         Reporting this incident, the New York Times observes that the two Egyptians were simply following an age-old New York tradition of scavenging, of finding and appropriating something discarded on the street.  In a densely populated city where people are moving in or out all the time, books, furniture, appliances, luggage, and even paintings are all fair game for scavengers.  According to the city’s administrative code, discarded items on the street should be left for the Sanitation Department and other professional trash carters to collect, but just try telling that to New Yorkers, who routinely – out of need or curiosity or the sheer fun of it – grab stuff left on the street.

         The Times article mentions some of the items that citizens have scavenged: a Persian lamb jacket, a cat-scratching post, and a salad bowl from Ikea, all found by one woman in Brooklyn; and discarded computers that a maintenance worker, also a Brooklynite, delights to find, since he can repair them and restore them to use.  Clearly, one person’s junk is another’s treasure.  And one veteran New Yorker has boasted of completely furnishing his small apartment with the spoils reclaimed, with a friend’s help, in a single day of strenuous scavenging on the first of the month, when people move out or move in, and discarded furniture can be found on the street.

         I confess to having, in my time, scavenged.  Only a year ago, en route to a restaurant on  Seventh Avenue, I saw a small piece of nicely finished blond wood lying on the curb.  Picking it up, I detected a slight crack that probably explains why it had been thrown out, but the crack was barely noticeable, blending in with the grain of the wood.  So I grabbed it and took it with me to the restaurant, having not the slightest idea what I would do with it.  It now sits on the windowsill near my desk, where I can simply enjoy the sight of it; recently I placed a potted cactus on top of it, but I really prefer leaving it bare, so I can see it unadorned.  And this at a time when I am trying to get rid of things, not acquire more.

         Yes, New Yorkers don’t just scavenge; they also put things out on the street, hoping a passerby will take them.  When I convinced my partner Bob that we had to get rid of some of things accumulated over the years, he agreed.  Finding whole shelves of unused glassware in the kitchen cabinets, I showed them to him item by item, and he, being the presumed owner (we didn’t even know where they came from), decided which should be kept and which should go.  I then put a few downstairs beside the steps at the entrance to our building, with a sign urging passersby to help themselves, and in every instance they disappeared within a day.  Someone somewhere – or more likely several someones – can now enjoy a shelf of glistening glasses and goblets that cost them not a cent.  And when, recently, having insisted that Bob get rid of books hidden behind other books on his bookshelves, I found some hidden books of my own in a bookcase beside my desk, I vowed to get rid of them.  They were French and Spanish textbooks that I had once edited but that I had no need of, so out they went downstairs.  Within hours, they were gone.  Hopefully, someone somewhere is brushing up on their languages, exercising their mouth muscles in an attempt to pronounce French, or puzzling over the difference between the prepositions para and por in Spanish.  I wish them well.

         I’m more of a scavenger than Bob is.  Just the other day I was tempted by a large square mirror near the curb downstairs, but wisely forbore, having no real need of it.  But the prize of our scavenging over the years was Bob’s, for years ago he came home one day lugging a small bookcase that we could clearly use.  Why would anyone discard a perfectly fine little bookcase?  The explanation was soon forthcoming, when roaches began to emerge from tiny gaps between the shelves and the case.  Quickly I deposited the bookcase in the bathroom, shut the door, grabbed a can of disinfectant, and began spraying the intruders as they came out of their hiding places.  This went on for at least twenty minutes, until forty little corpses lay in heaps on the floor.  I then flushed the corpses away, scrubbed the bookcase clean, and announced to Bob that we had a new, very serviceable bookcase.  It filled up quickly and stands in our hallway to this day.

         What else have I scavenged over the years?  Books, always on an impulse and never in numbers, since we lack space for them.  Folders that a law student had discarded, each labeled with the name of course he had taken; from then on, instead of his vanished class notes, they housed manuscripts of mine.  A small rainbow flag that I found in a trash can the day after a Gay Pride parade, its splintered shaft easily repaired.  Two very usable wine glasses that someone had left in our trash area downstairs.  Two plump little throw pillows abandoned in a neighbor’s apartment when he moved out and invited other tenants to enter and help themselves.  Besides the pillows, I grabbed a corkscrew, but couldn’t use other items on display, including furniture that someone furnishing an apartment would have loved to acquire. 

         It can even happen that an item doesn’t just sit on the curb, awaiting a new owner, but goes in search of one.  Once, on a very windy day, a huge  black umbrella came flying toward me, carried along by gusts of wind.  I grabbed it, found it intact except for a missing handle, and waited for the owner, handle in hand, to come chasing after it, but when no one appeared, I  took it home.  It served us as a spare umbrella for years.

         But my specialty is pens: push-point pens or ordinary pens, blue-ink pens or black-ink pens, fine-point pens or medium-point pens – any kind of pen.  Over the years I have found them on the sidewalk while doing errands in my neighborhood, or in parks, or even along trails in upstate wilderness areas where I used to hike on weekdays alone.   And if half of them didn’t work, the other half did.  Result: for years I never had to buy a new pen.  Only recently, in the throes of advancing maturity, have I hesitated to claim them, since they are way down there, and I am way up here.  But if the item looks interesting, I’ll make the effort.  My presumed epitaph: 


Obviously, a stellar claim to fame.

         Of course nothing is simple in New York.  Lone scavengers and organized teams of scavengers are compromising the city’s efforts at recycling.  How so?  Before the Sanitation workers can get to the discarded items separated out for recycling – paper, plastic, glass, and metal – the scavengers get them and tote them off to be recycled.  That rusty old air conditioner can be sold for scrap metal; those cans from last night’s boozing can be turned in for a nickel apiece.  Some homeless people depend on what they get from scavenging to buy a little food.  And why does the city object, if the stuff still gets recycled?  Because it makes it difficult for the city to meet its recycling goals.  The city, not the scavengers, must get the credit for recycling.  What the scavengers are doing, says the city, is just plain theft.  To which the homeless reply indignantly that they are simply trying to get by, while at the same time helping clean up the city.

         Am I myself a thief?  No, because I have never taken stuff meant for recycling; my spoils are simply stray items found here or there, often put out in hopes that someone will scavenge them.  To grab a pen on the sidewalk, or a rainbow flag in a trash can, or an escaped umbrella flying by on a windy day, is not to compromise the city’s recycling campaign; it simply reduces the clutter on the streets, even if, in the process, I’m feathering my nest as well.  And these days I’m out to reduce my feathers, not add to them; my nest is overfull.  Anyone want some dusty old French books, or an illustrated  book on the gods of India?  Or The New York Walk Book, or The Dream of the Red Chamber, a classic Chinese novel?  If so, speak up, and fast, because that’s what I’m currently tossing out.  And if, in the process, I see a homeless person taking a few discarded bottles out of a trash can, I’m not going to have them arrested.

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          My poems:  For five acceptable poems, click here and scroll down.  To avoid five terrible poems, don't click here.  For my poem "The Other," inspired by the Orlando massacre, click here.

          My books:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), my historical novel about a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client, is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

         Coming soon:  A reprint of a post on Halloween, followed by one on profanity – especially mine -- that will reveal my dark heart and foul tongue, and raise the question, Do we have a right to swear?

         ©  2016  Clifford Browder