What I have Seen

I have been hiking for over fifty years. I was lucky enough to have friends and family living near wild places, so I could hike to exhaustion and sleep in a bed. New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Virginia, California, Washington, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming, Texas, Missouri, Southern Illinois—to name but a few.

I have learned that there is nothing in nature more dangerous than I am—nothing. I’ve been stung by a scorpion, bitten by a black widow and a brown recluse, struck at by rattlesnakes. But the scariest moment I ever experienced was in the Washington Cascades when a clearly deranged man stepped out from the woods and screamed, “You’re late!”

I didn’t know him, I knew this might be my moment to defend my life, and I suddenly knew I would kill him if I had to. Fortunately, the man slipped back into the woods. I was twenty miles from my car—my choice was to defend myself, or perish. I didn’t have to ponder that; my body took over, and I was a killer.

One dangerous animal, in fifty years. A man.

I have seen several dozen bears, watched as one black bear approached me on the Appalachian Trail and walked right by me. I have picked blueberries in the Sandwich Mountains of New Hampshire only to be joined by a standing black bear which emerged from the forest, stood, and harvested her own blueberries. I have stood next to a female moose, only a single tree separating us, my six-foot frame dwarfed by its seven-foot-high head. I have stood on a New Mexico hillside filled with western diamondback rattlesnake dens, listened to the symphony of rattling, peed myself. I have been a pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

I have eaten lunch with porcupines, pine siskins, crows, ravens, mice—and a feral cat on top of Black Mountain. I have laid on my back on a mountain top and watched peregrine falcons hover in the wind just above my face. With friends David and Linda, I’ve watched California condors with ten-foot wingspans glide right past me. Just one critter stalked me in fifty years: a gorgeous mountain lion that was crawling toward me on its belly, like a housecat. I sang opera, and the cat turned and ran away.

I’ve been nearly killed by being stung and paralyzed by cow parsnip, bitten by fire ants. I broke through the ice on the frozen Illinois River, standing chest deep the water, in twelve below zero weather. I fell over fifty feet off a cliff, catching a fir tree on the way down, landing on my back and breaking a lot of bones. I was mass stung by yellowjackets in the Murder Hole, in Virginia. I’m still alive.

I’ve seen: wilderness, mountains, waterfalls, wild rivers, marshes with male moose yelling for women, swamps, caves. I’ve scaled cliffs without ropes even though I’m terrified of heights. I’ve been blown off a cliff face by wind. My toes are frost bitten. I am arthritic and broken, but I keep on hiking.

I have found many thousands of fossils, thousands of Indian artifacts. My house is filled with arrowheads and tools some of which are over ten thousand years old.

Why am I writing this? Because I have been in the wilderness, a place that modern children do not go. And because they do not go, our government has actual plans to take over Teddy Roosevelt’s designated sacred landscapes. There is but one species on earth that is trying to obliterate all other living things. Us.

What is in the wilderness that everyone must experience? Beauty. Power. Color. Smell. Peace. And dare I, the atheist in the woodpile, say it—spirituality.

Your grandkids watching nature videos on their smart phones cannot possibly experience the overwhelming power of the living, breathing, breathtaking earth. There is no zoo which can replicate the way wild things actually move and birth and hunt and survive. There is no experience in your settled life that can match wildness, no human architecture which can come close to the carved-out spires of the planet, duplicate the roots and petals and branches and perfumes and tastes of Planet Earth.

How close are you locals and your children and grandchildren to wildness? Two hours to the Little Grand Canyon in the Shawnee National Forest in Illinois, a wild place so stunningly beautiful that vacationing foreigners from around the world cross oceans to see it.

When I was a kid, camped with my grandpa Red Jones on the Platte River in Nebraska, Red woke me up at sunrise, put a finger to his lips so I wouldn’t wake anyone else, and signaled for me to step outside. And there, on the butte above us, was a female mountain lion warming in the first light. And my grandpa squatted and held me, and we were awestruck.

There is awe all around us.

But there won’t be—if your kids spend their days indoors and pretend to hike in a video game.

Our government is actively decommissioning national monuments, for oil and gas exploration. Our government is stealing your paths, mountains, forests for cash. If hiking is just a hobby for a few people like me, our government will take back and de-rock and de-mountain and de-animal and de-wilderness and “pave paradise and put up a parking lot.” As I write, the mountains of West Virginia are being leveled for coal. How can you tear down a mountain?

Easy.

 

 

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Cluck! Cluck!

There is a reason why gun violence will go on in perpetuity: White people.

It is in the interest of white people to cluck their tongues righteously when reporters ask them about gun violence. It is also in the interest of white people to step back and watch and allow black youth to shoot other black youth and kill them. “Cluck-cluck,” say the mayor and the police chief.

Cluck-cluck, but: Dead-dead. And a dead black youth is a good black youth.

And don’t forget the scared—I mean sacred—the Second Amendment. Uneducated white people (and rich ones) need those guns for the coming black revolution. So they can kill black people too. And because Whitey needs his gun, the guns flow.

1968 was the turning point when black Olympians Tommy Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved fists while the National Anthem was being played. White people suddenly hated the Olympics. Intellectual black voices, influenced by black James Baldwin (who had recently ripped William F. Buckley to shreds in a debate), black Lorraine Hansberry, black Stokely Carmichael and their ilk, started speaking up.

And the white South retaliated with unspeakable violence. And then the North jumped in. With guns. Gotta have those guns, even if the revolution is language, not out and out rebellion in the streets. I will never forget overhearing some Alton white men in a café talking seriously about arming themselves and capturing the Alton bridge so the blacks couldn’t attack after the Michael Brown murder.

Conceal carry equals white cowardice. It is (apparently? theoretically? ironically?) easier to shoot a black person than to talk or break bread with a black person. The sacred St. Louis Cardinals games now feature gun lockers because the poor white attendees, armed, show up in droves, in case the black revolution breaks out in the ninth inning.

Diapers? Check. Sun screen? Check. Phones? Check. Guns? Check.

“They ruined it.” White person speaking about St. Louis.

Exactly who are “they?” The poor? The folks who can’t afford to have a drink at the very architecturally ugly Ballpark Village? The black families who take their kids to the zoo? The mentally ill or down on their luck homeless who are homeless because we don’t give a shit—it’s their fault, it’s evolution, it’s “I don’t like black people?”

Black ministers and social organizers aren’t clueless. They are powerless. Because it is in the interest of the white power structure to allow senseless violence. It is in the interest of cowardly conceal carry white citizens. It is in the interest of Republicans because they can toss the red meat to their unwashed. It is in the interest of the Democrats because black people will vote for them anyway.

When white ministers stand up in pulpits and talk about racism, the healing will begin. With a price. In the 50s, Alton’s First Unitarian Church’s Reverend John Glanville Gill, author of by far the best biography of Elijah P. Lovejoy, spoke out against racism from his pulpit. His congregation kicked him out.

So what? So what, if the white community ostracizes you for speaking out?

St. Louis kindergartner David Birchfield III. Last Saturday he was in his mom’s car when someone shot him to death. His father said, “we have to stop this violence.”

I have the solution: ban all guns from public spaces. Make the penalties reflect the pain of the sufferers.

“We didn’t start the fire.” We’re not putting out the fire either.

Trayvon Martin was killed on this day. Michael Brown. Chandra Levy. The list just grows like a healthy tree root. While black children die like poisoned tree roots.

Cluck! Cluck!

 

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What I Have Seen

I have been hiking for over fifty years. I was lucky enough to have friends and family living near wild places, so I could hike to exhaustion and sleep in a bed. New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Virginia, California, Washington, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming, Texas, Missouri, Southern Illinois—to name but a few.

I have learned that there is nothing in nature more dangerous than I am—nothing. I’ve been stung by a scorpion, bitten by a black widow and a brown recluse, struck at by rattlesnakes. But the scariest moment I ever experienced was in the Washington Cascades when a clearly deranged man stepped out from the woods and screamed, “You’re late!”

I didn’t know him, I knew this might be my moment to defend my life, and I suddenly knew I would kill him if I had to. Fortunately, the man slipped back into the woods. I was twenty miles from my car—my choice was to defend myself, or perish. I didn’t have to ponder that; my body took over, and I was a killer.

One dangerous animal, in fifty years. A man.

I have seen several dozen bears, watched as one black bear approached me on the Appalachian Trail and walked right by me. I have picked blueberries in the Sandwich Mountains of New Hampshire only to be joined by a standing black bear which emerged from the forest, stood, and harvested her own blueberries. I have stood next to a female moose, only a single tree separating us, my six-foot frame dwarfed by its seven-foot-high head. I have stood on a New Mexico hillside filled with western diamondback rattlesnake dens, listened to the symphony of rattling, peed myself. I have been a pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

I have eaten lunch with porcupines, pine siskins, crows, ravens, mice—and a feral cat on top of Black Mountain. I have laid on my back on a mountain top and watched peregrine falcons hover in the wind just above my face. With friends David and Linda, I’ve watched California condors with ten-foot wingspans glide right past me. Just one critter stalked me in fifty years: a gorgeous mountain lion that was crawling toward me on its belly, like a housecat. I sang opera, and the cat turned and ran away.

I’ve been nearly killed by being stung and paralyzed by cow parsnip, bitten by fire ants. I broke through the ice on the frozen Illinois River, standing chest deep the water, in twelve below zero weather. I fell over fifty feet off a cliff, catching a fir tree on the way down, landing on my back and breaking a lot of bones. I was mass stung by yellowjackets in the Murder Hole, in Virginia. I’m still alive.

I’ve seen: wilderness, mountains, waterfalls, wild rivers, marshes with male moose yelling for women, swamps, caves. I’ve scaled cliffs without ropes even though I’m terrified of heights. I’ve been blown off a cliff face by wind. My toes are frost bitten. I am arthritic and broken, but I keep on hiking.

I have found many thousands of fossils, thousands of Indian artifacts. My house is filled with arrowheads and tools some of which are over ten thousand years old.

Why am I writing this? Because I have been in the wilderness, a place that modern children do not go. And because they do not go, our government has actual plans to take over Teddy Roosevelt’s designated sacred landscapes. There is but one species on earth that is trying to obliterate all other living things. Us.

What is in the wilderness that everyone must experience? Beauty. Power. Color. Smell. Peace. And dare I, the atheist in the woodpile, say it—spirituality.

Your grandkids watching nature videos on their smart phones cannot possibly experience the overwhelming power of the living, breathing, breathtaking earth. There is no zoo which can replicate the way wild things actually move and birth and hunt and survive. There is no experience in your settled life that can match wildness, no human architecture which can come close to the carved-out spires of the planet, duplicate the roots and petals and branches and perfumes and tastes of Planet Earth.

How close are you locals and your children and grandchildren to wildness? Two hours to the Little Grand Canyon in the Shawnee National Forest in Illinois, a wild place so stunningly beautiful that vacationing foreigners from around the world cross oceans to see it.

When I was a kid, camped with my grandpa Red Jones on the Platte River in Nebraska, Red woke me up at sunrise, put a finger to his lips so I wouldn’t wake anyone else, and signaled for me to step outside. And there, on the butte above us, was a female mountain lion warming in the first light. And my grandpa squatted and held me, and we were awestruck.

There is awe all around us.

But there won’t be—if your kids spend their days indoors and pretend to hike in a video game.

Our government is actively decommissioning national monuments, for oil and gas exploration. Our government is stealing your paths, mountains, forests for cash. If hiking is just a hobby for a few people like me, our government will take back and de-rock and de-mountain and de-animal and de-wilderness and “pave paradise and put up a parking lot.” As I write, the mountains of West Virginia are being leveled for coal. How can you tear down a mountain?

Easy.

 

 

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The 21st Century Edmund Pettis Bridge

A noose was placed on his locker. An ace of spades playing card was inserted into his locker. Racist notes were left inside his locker. A Hispanic co-worker refused to train him because he was black. The men’s restroom stalls were filled with racist graffiti. The company he worked for had already settled a huge racial lawsuit in another one of its sites. The lawsuit cited nooses hung on black employees’ lockers.

This is the back story of Anthony Ferrill, the African American man who shot and killed five coworkers and then shot himself to death, in the Molson Coors brewery in Milwaukee last week.

We are so used to mass shootings now. We are so used to hearing that the gunman is white. Indeed, almost all mass shooters are white males. Almost certainly, the white shooters did not have nooses hung on their lockers or racist notes posted.

The Milwaukee police department says that there is no apparent racial motive behind Ferrill’s rampage. Which makes the Milwaukee police department: blind? stupid? A Molson Coors spokesman stated that there were no cameras near the lockers. And Anthony Ferrill did not file a HR report, nor did he complain to the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.

So. Do we focus on Ferrill’s silence and subsequent action? Or, do we talk about the new “benign” racism that infects work places?

My book tells about black Alton factory workers, originally employed by government edict in the Johnson administration. Now these workers had jobs. But the new, non-lynching racism fomented by white workers began. On breaks, white workers stuck thumbs in their pants pockets and lowered the next three fingers—the KKK secret warning. Everything that Ferrill experienced happened in Alton.

A black catch phrase, spoken at the Alton glass plant and the steel plant and the ammunition plant began: “White men in white cars from Whitehall.” A black man I interviewed told me he was so put upon by a racist boss, he took a gun to work, to kill the boss. Ironically, the boss did not show up for work.

The racism in our country is palpable. Target stores just put out a new series of ads featuring smiling, prosperous black entrepreneurs. White internet responders wrote obscene and terrible things. (White males circulated a cartoon depicting teen climate activist Geta Thunberg being sexually assaulted.) Computers are the new hiding places for cowards and racists.

Do good white people recognize themselves as part of the problem, in the current racial crisis? They cluck their tongues a lot: Shame! But they don’t say “shame” when they overhear a racist comment; nor do they attend city hall meetings to protest redlining, or racial imbalance and unpreparedness in Alton schools, or at city planning meetings where the new slogan is “Healthy, Happy Alton,” or as one black friend calls it, “right out of the “Whitey Handbook.”

Over and over, I hear: Why don’t blacks reach out to us? Why don’t they care?

Are you kidding me, blind and deaf white America? Blacks reach out to you? How the hell do you know about black caring?

Your ancestors and mine (yes, even those who fought for the North) looked away from lynching, slavery, torture, rape. The white wealth accrued over centuries today owes its fortune to the enslavement of a people. And after those people were freed, those four million souls with nothing except the clothing on their backs, straggled into cities, the origin of the very same ghettos we know today.

Have I answered the question as to why Anthony Ferrill shot five people to death in Milwaukee? Of course not. I have offered a motive—more at this point than has the Milwaukee police department.

Anthony Ferrill has left this world via the 21st Century Edmund Pettis Bridge.

 

 

 

 

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Shirts v Skins

In 1985, my friend Dr. Mel Slott, who resembled the actor Telly Savalas as the TV character Kojak, and whose one private writing lesson changed my life, became the chair of the theater department at Eastern Illinois University in downstate Charleston. I took a train down for a weekend visit.

The irascible Mel asked if I wanted to play some basketball. Some friends of his, two professors and their three boys and a girl, loved to play B-ball. I was surprised, as I had never heard Mel mention a sport of any kind.

We hopped in his car and drove out of town, parking on the side of a highway along the Embarrass River. I wondered where the court was, and Mel, a reptilian grin on his face, pointed to the woods. We hiked about two miles along a path.

Mel stopped: “Do you want to take off your clothes?”

This out of the blue question was as potent as, say, “Do you want me to stab you repeatedly with a dull knife?”

He explained that the family lived naked in three caves along the river. Mel loved happenings like this. He loved embarrassing people, putting them on the spot. I said, no, I wouldn’t remove my clothes, and he shrugged and we walked on.

We came to a clearing. Three caves were on the south edge, and two tents had been set up in a grove of sassafras trees. The professors used the tents as offices, with typewriters and chairs. One taught English, the other was a professor of film studies. Cloth bags hung from trees along the bank, filled with goat cheese. A herd of goats wandered about. There was a basketball hoop and backboard nailed to a tree off to the side.

And out from the middle cave emerged the two professors, their teenaged daughter, the twin boys and an older teenaged boy. And yes, they were stark naked—save for tennis shoes.

We met in the middle of the clearing, the family hugging Mel and shaking my hand. If you know me, you know I wanted to escape, to be back in my modest Chicago apartment, free and clear of my latest girlfriend Lydia, who sold drugs.

We sat at a picnic table, eating goat cheese and greens, Mel telling the family that I was a playwright, some discussion about film, the kids talking about their schools. It was normal stuff—except the kids were naked, their parents were naked. Strangely, Mel and I were beset with no-see-ums and sweat bees and mosquitos. Not a critter bit the naked people.

I learned that they all wore clothes to work and school and about town. They all rode bicycles into town. To preserve food, they suspended bags in the river.

And then it was time for basketball. I was on the team with the twins and their dad. Mel (who never intended to remove his clothes) got the mom and teenaged girl and older brother.

I don’t recall a score. I do recall dribbling a basketball on the dirt ground, my back to the basket, the very hairy girl guarding me, me afraid to take a step lest I come in contact with Eve parts, my team’s penises flopping, the mother’s (she was from England) long and flat breasts bouncing like stretched rubber bands.

On Sunday night, Mel threw a dinner party. The now-clothed family rode to town on their bikes. The kids, who didn’t even have electricity, all flopped in front of the TV. Mel’s German girlfriend—they would break up this weekend—kept stating that she hated Germans. There was a writer visiting from one of the Slavic countries.

It became clear to me that the Slavic writer was in need of a green card, and that the purpose of the dinner party was to get me, Eugene Baldwin, newly divorced, to agree to marry the Slav.

The Slavic writer, bless her, had an extra tiny rounded head and bowl-cut hair on a normal body—not counting curvature of the spine. She looked across the table at me as if I were a specimen in a petri dish. She whispered something about a dowry.

Mel, who had sent my first play to a show biz lawyer in New York, who then offered the script to a director, who would direct my play Off Broadway, sat at the head of the table and smiled. The naked professors, now dressed in stiff, river-washed clothes, smiled. The German girlfriend smiled. The neutral children watched “Hogan’s Heroes” on the TV.

I didn’t smile. I blurted out something like I’d think it over. The Slavic writer nodded.

I lied. I imagined myself living alone in a cave on the Embarrass River, with no human contact for the rest of my life. Maybe some cats. A few goats. A year’s supply of ale stashed in bags in the river. Cheezits. No women. Well, I had been kissed by Brook Shields on the syndicated Joe Franklin TV talk show in NYC. So: Brook—yes.

Mel offered a toast. His German girlfriend said, “To Chermany—I hate Chermany.” The Slavic writer looked at me all the while running an index finger around the rim of her wine glass. The tune was “Get Me to the Church on Time.”

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The Countess Somebody from Italy

I was thinking about skin cancer last night (I have it). And sunscreen. And that led me to recall my adventure in New York City, in 1984.

My play “Going Steady (and Other Fables of the Heart),” opened Off Broadway in the fall of ’84. Heady stuff for a first-time playwright. The publicist set me up for some appearances on local media, including “The Joey Adams Show” on the radio, Joey a former Borscht Belt comedian, now about 90. And there was “The Joe Franklin Show,” a daily talk show in New York City that was also syndicated.

Franklin taped five shows every Monday. I happened to be on the first segment. The other guest was Jack Klugman’s ex-wife Brett Somers, who was on a lot of TV game shows. During break, Joe told me he hadn’t realized there were no more male guests for the week. Would I be his “Ed McMahon” for the week? I would be expected to join in the patter and ask guests questions.

The second show featured Brooke Shields—teen Brooke Shields who was staggeringly beautiful. She came out, kissed Joe and then show-biz kissed me and sat and talked bout her current ad campaign for non-smoking. Posters depicted her with a smashed cigarette in her luscious lips with a slogan something like “smoking isn’t cool.” I felt my head bobbing at every syllable from Brooke’s mouth: Yes. Yes. Yes, Brooke. I remember her stage mother Terri standing behind the cameras and glaring (so I thought) at me. With good reason. I wanted to lick her daughter.

I can’t recall the third and fifth shows, New York celebrities, none of whom wished to commune with the playwright. But the fourth show—oh my god. The guest was Countess Somebody from Italy, a beauty expert who was hawking (of course!) a new book on beauty secrets.

Out walked Countess Somebody from Italy, on a cane. She must have been 90. She wore a long black dress, pearls, and a black hat and veil, her middle girdled tightly. I thought there was a chance that the countess might explode. I literally could not see her face—except for a curved line of bright red lipstick. She moved side to side, as if she might topple at any moment. Joe and I helped her sit. And I went into a panic. Would she want to lick me?

What question would I ask of the Countess Somebody from Italy?

Joe Franklin had partied with the countess. I think he might have visited her in Italy. I was sitting there, sweater and blue jeans, feeling like, oh, Countess Somebody’s gardener Eugenio. Thankfully, Joe was a pro. He asked her about moisturizers and wrinkles and healthy food for vibrant skin, and god knows what. And I was thinking, I’m off the hook. I was even daydreaming a bit—my play was opening in a few days; I was hot shit.

Then Joe Franklin, tearing me from my reverie, said, “Gene, what do you want to ask the countess?”

The black hat black veil turned in my direction; the red lipstick wound parted and waited. For show biz neophyte hick playwright Eugene Baldwin to ask a question about beauty.

I heard myself say, “I’m very pale.” The Countess nodded. Joe Franklin pursed his lips: More, please, pale Ed McMahon. “Hi-yo!”

“I’m very pale.” Pause. “I… I sunburn easily.”

Countess Somebody from Italy sprang into action, doing ten minutes about this pale playwright and what he must do to achieve beauty, Joe Franklin over her shoulder in total sympathy: you poor Midwestern boy who sunburns, oh no! (Would she have been pleased to know I had skin cancer 35 years later?)

Next up: “The Joey Adams Show,” with Joey mentioning my play once and proceeding to riff a stream of jokes about the Midwest, cows and corn, deliberately mispronouncing “Alton,” saying with a Yiddish accent “y’all” every fourth word, and a monologue about the Catskills.

Gentle Reader, I did not lick Brooke Shields. Oh yes: My play sucked.

 

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octoberiver

the sun makes jewels of the river

and the trees light long, slow fires

and wetland pelicans like cottonfields

gather

and cottonmouths slitherpath to sleep

and the turquoise sky like deep dreams

and limestone bluffs all shadowpaint seep

sweet water

 

 

 

 

 

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King Gene

I, in my great unmatched wisdom, declare that the Village of Godfrey has hereby become the Kingdom of Gene. I am King Gene, not to be confused with Mr. Green Jeans or Gwen Stiffy Annie, or Greta What’shername. Make Adoration of Gene Great Again (MAGGA). Villagers are hereby referred to as Maggots.

Tributes to King Gene may include: Girls (I’m not picky).

The Kingdom of Gene announces tolls on every road the peasants—I mean pissants—I mean people drive on. All schools closed—keep them Maggots dumb. The Mississippi River is hereby the Gene River, and only I can sail upon it.

Only churches which glorify King Gene and White Jesus may remain open. Every fourth child in line at Dairy Queen (my true Queen, love those blizzards) is mine, to be used as workers in the Jeffrey Epstein Institute (formerly Godfrey City Hall).

I, in my unmatched wisdom, declare black to be white (but not black people to be white people—I mean, get real).

Unmatched wisdom is not to be confused with unmatched socks. The former is me; the latter comes from China. In my wisdom, I hereby: withdraw the troops from Sirius Radio, lower the taxes of my lords and their ladies of the evening, and impose tariffs on goods from St. Louis, or as the KOG calls it, “Dark Town.”

The Kingdom of Gene, where all the men are strong, all the children are good-looking, and all the women are mine, is an equal opportunity backstabber. Banned as of January 1: Mexican rapists’ restaurants; ice cream because it sounds like ISIS; farmers because they’re farmers; every person named Charlie; only Casey’s General Store pizza will be allowed because there isn’t a hint of Italian in any bite.

The Kingdom of Gene has perfect parks, the best parks, huuuuge parks. Too bad you Maggots can no longer visit them. The Kingdom of Gene has the best water, like lemonade, really. Too bad you Maggots can no longer drink it. Your King, Gene, doesn’t like trees. The Kingdom of Gene’s forestry crews will be harvesting the trees around your Maggot house and selling them to Afghanistan for wooden swords to fight the Taliban.

Rules for Women in the Kingdom of Gene: Old ladies bye-bye!
Rules for Men in the Kingdom of Gene: Sext away—Grab it! Cop a feel of it! There is no sexual harassment here!

Thanks to all the Maggots who voted for me. You expected a mayor; you got a king. And now, let’s all sing the King Gene Song © 2019:

“King Gene loves me, this I know/The King Gene Bible tells me so/We are Maggots/We don’t count/He’ll love us if we put out.” Chorus: “Yes, King Gene loves me/Yes, King Gene Loves me/Yes, King Gene loves me/The King Gene Bible tells me so.”

And I tell you so. I love you, my Maggots, my hayseed stupidos! Make Adoration of Gene Great Again! God bless me! And God bless the Me!

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Consider

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow;
they toil not, neither do they spin.”

Consider the birds of the forest, the sky;
they sing—not on Spotify.
Consider a world without birds;
Explain to your grandson:
only feed birds in winter, otherwise spoil them.
Teach him to take birdsong for granted,
(a single note of which pales Mozart’s power).
Explain how one-third means two-thirds remain;
one-third of birds vanished from Earth—
just a number, nothing more, stay calm.
Your grandson’s third grade class learned
that birds evolved from dinosaurs;
the skeletons of birds, of behemoths are the same.
Tell the child you don’t believe in evolution;
feel his small hand disengage from yours.
When he cries out, “I don’t want to live like that,”
Tell him, “Hush, someone might hear you;
it is God’s will, the End of Days.”
Tell him the world is just fine;
all that nonsense about milkweed is a liberal lie.

Explain your cancer.

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Prospects

A destitute family with no prospects moves, hoping for a better life. The son, just back from prison for manslaughter, rejoins them. They meet up with other destitute families all in the same boat—poverty, starvation, bad luck. When police kill the son’s friend, he retaliates by killing a policeman. He goes on the lam, abetted by family and friends. His mother and father both die and his sister miscarriages. It all goes wrong and it will never be right.

I have just encapsulated John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” and the plight of Tom Joad and his white family out of the Dust Bowl and into oblivion. The book won a Pulitzer; the movie won Best Picture. Kern County, California, where the book ends—with Rose of Sharon, Tom’s sister, having miscarried, breastfeeding a dying stranger—was not at all happy with the story. “What’s good for General Bullmoose,” after all.

And I have just described the desperation that goes on in poor black St. Louis communities every single week. It plays into the white perception that crime is a black thing, that blacks kill blacks and no one cares. That whites must gate up their homes and live separately. For self-preservation.

The 1930 era must have been shocked by the Joads. Movie and television entertainment were all giggles, screwball comedies; the nation did not see or hear about the Okies, the families wiped out by the Dust Bowl. People loved the book and the film; politicians denounced it as a communist plot.

Imagine the greater shock if the Joad family had been black.

Imagine a 1930 book about the plight of blacks in the Jim Crow era. Would not have been published—if written. Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry et al, and now Ta-Nehisi Coates (“Between the World and Me”, a must-read) and contemporary black writers–would not have been published. At the time, their ancestors were being terrorized by whites—not just in the South: in my town of Alton, in Belleville, New York, in the USA. Perhaps the message is that the poor of all colors fight a class war. There is some truth to that. But poor blacks, without the inestimable benefits of white privilege, have little to no shot. Horatio Alger is the whitest of white myths.

Last week, I wrote a piece about an innocent black kid shot to death in his own yard. This week it’s about the shooter of that kid. He accidentally shot the kid (he was aiming for someone else—a tragedy in every way—stole some money, went on the lam, his aunt aided and abetted his escape, and now he’s in jail. Winner? Loser?

Now he’s in jail. Like the cop killer Tom Joad. Root for the fictional one and not the real one. The real one on the home team.

 

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