©1998 A.D. Sullivan
Sidewalks of New York
Roses for a Lady
At the Crucial Hour
Fighting the Machine
I live in a room where the curtains are black,
the rugs, they are ragged, the nice, they are fat,
and each holds a fortune of riches untold,
meats made of silver, loaves made of gold,
The walls, they are covered with paper thin veins,
wearing scars of their battles like ribbons of change,
and they're all held together with paint and with dust
and the tracks of its tears are colored like rust,
I live in a room where the sun never shines,
It hides behind shadows of half-opened blinds,
it lights with the movement of cars that pass by,
the turning of pages, the wink of an eye,
It turns off its life and its shadows, they fade
as it shrinks from the headlines it's already made,
the star shine, its sparkles, it tingles, it bites,
it's all that is life, it is all that is light,
I live in a room where the windows are closed,
and stinks of the farm life and it stinks of the crows,
and I dwell in its scene cause its freedom is there,
and there's no gold on earth that can tarnish its air,
There are stains on my shoes and it isn't from gold,
it's from fighting the thirst, the hunger and cold,
they're things that you've heard of, but never have seen,
and it's easy to look down when you live in a dream,
I live in a room where the windows are stained
with the salt of my memories and blood in my veins
and no one dare look in, they know what they'll see,
reflections of their sins in a portrait of me,
the colors are faded, but the oils are new
they run like a river but reflect only you,
there's pain on my fingers, but no ring through my nose,
no sweet painted ladies in black colored hose,
I live in a room where the winters are cold,
cause I can't stand the heat or the glimmer of gold,
and I can't pay the price cause the price is too dear
like the ring on your finger and the words in your ear,
there's an ocean of souls and you call them your slaves
as you sit on your beauty and laugh at the waves,
then nothing is nothing, and nothing is new
and I may be crazy, but then, so are you.
I live in a room where the wall paper's bare
and the laundry is dirty with a mood of despair,
and there's no one to clean it, nor powder to burn,
no riches to leave it, no courage to learn,
And you sit like an angel on a throne for a queen,
bragging of riches and things that you've seen,
but you haven't seen anything, just a jester, it seems,
and he laughs at your riches and he laughs at your dreams.
The booms and bangs always came from Danny's room. So did the oddest smells.
When we first heard the sounds and smelled the scents, many of us grew concerned, pounding on the wall to make the booming stop, or calling his name up the stairs to say he'd better not have set the rooming house on fire.
Each time, his door opened slightly and his blond head of long hair squeezed out, his pimply face as red as dirty as an used brillo pad. He grinned, and assured us, nothing was wrong.
"It was nothing, guy," he said, and vanished again, leaving the lot of us to stare at each other, each in our various stages of getting ready for bed.
The smells were worse than the noises, partly because a pillow over my head could muffle the sound, long enough for me to get back to sleep. But the smells had no reasonable cure, even with the windows open. They worked their way under his door and down the hall, stopping before each of our doors, easing in without a knock to stir us from sleep, the stench making me think something had died.
"What the hell is that boy doing in there?" Doug asked me once, he being the nearest to Danny with his door directly across the hall.
"He invents things," I said, recalling someone else telling me, though that person long ago moved out.
"Invents what? Biological weapons?"
But sounds and smells were only part of the string of disasters Danny caused. One time, when one experiment went afoul, the whole house lost its electricity. Another time, he sent such a shuddered through the house cracks appeared in our walls and dust fell on our heads.
As cheery as Danny was, he was not the kind of person we easily warmed to. For one thing, he stank nearly as much as his experiments. No one had ever recalled his taking a shower, although he used the bathroom frequently to seek water from some huge experiment, perpetually knocking when someone else was in there to request a bucket of water.
"It has to be warm," he said, and then proceeded to take not one bucket, but a half dozen, leaving the hot water running long enough to use up the supply.
He also spoke gruffly, as if he had too many things on his mind to deal with us and our small talk. We would say hello passing him in the hall and he would grumble. We would wish him a good day when we saw him on the porch and he would snort.
So it was a very big surprise to me when one day someone knocked at my door and I opened it to find him standing there.
"I need your help quick," he told me, looking more panicked than I'd ever seen him, though I had heard no boom nor smelled no stink. "Do you have any paper towels?"
"Certainly," I said and handed him the roll.
Danny vanished in the direction of his room, and because he left his door open to deal with whatever disaster it was, I was drawn out of my room to take a peek.
But he had not gone to his room, but down the stairs on his side of the house to the second floor and the apartment below which the land lord was still in the process of renovating.
The landlord had made it clear to all of us that he wanted no one to go into that part of the house, so I eased down the stairs to see just what Danny was up to.
I heard the sound of dripping water before I even saw him, and then I saw him, kneeling on the floor, using sheet after sheet of paper towel to mop up water seeping out from under the apartment door into the hall.
A stair creaked, and he glanced over his shoulder and saw me, his face growing even redder than usual, as he tried to shove the whole roll of towels at the crack beneath the door to keep me from seeing the oozing liquid, water gushing out as if he had turned on a faucet.
"The water's coming from my room," he said.
I glanced back up towards his room, which was directly above the place where he knelt.
"How?" I asked.
"My fish tank broke."
"Your fish tank?" I said, picturing the ten gallon tank I had had in my uncle's house, never imagining it doing what this did. "How big a fish tank?"
"Three hundred gallons."
"It's for my experiment," he said.
"But a fish tank that big could have come through the floor."
"It did, a little," Danny mumbled. "That's why it broke. It sank a little, and then the wood broke the glass, and now I've got to keep the water from going all the way down..."
The horror of it hit me immediately. Danny was not worried so much about water damage to the renovated apartment, but to the apartment below that, the apartment in which the landlord lived. I pictured the gold patterned wall paper and the expensive fine art, and the stained woodwork, as well as the leather furniture, thick carpet, and brand new stereo system, all of which would be ruined it the water seeped down through the next layer.
The bellow from below indicated he had failed, and slowly, Danny stood, and made his way downstairs to meet the man whose apartment he had ruined.
Danny had acquired the term "Wizard" long before he came to our rooming house, a clever man with clever hands, if not too clear a head. The landlord, a money hungry yuppie-type before anyone thought up the term "Yuppie" saw Danny as a cheap way of having a handyman and helper living in the house and being paid for the privilege.
I thought for certain the fish tank disaster would get Danny tossed out, but did not, the land lord managing to make a claim to his insurance company that actually put his profits into the black for the month. The man seemed to see the smell of fish as small consolation for making money.
And if the disaster changed Danny, no one noticed it. He seemed even more haughty than before, sneaking up the stairs in the middle of the night with secret ingredients to some new experiment, his scruffy clothing stained from some adventure a world of mud and motor oil.
"You're not staring up another fish tank in there, are you?" I asked from time to time.
Danny would blush and assure me he was not. But he was up to something, and the sounds he made changed over time, from booms to clanks, and the smells from chemical experiments to something I might better associate with morning rush hour.
But the sounds grew louder and a rumbling more insistent, and I could not resist watching out for Danny to see what he was bringing up to his room at night, then, early one morning, I heard him struggling with something as he climbed the stairs, and caught him hugging a piece of wide chrome that I soon discovered was the bumper to a car.
"Do you need help?" I asked.
He nodded, and between the two of us we managed to get it up to the door of his room.
"I guess you're wondering what I'm doing with this?" he said, as he fished in his pocket for his key.
"I am," I said, now too curious to hide it.
"I'll show you," he said, then swung the door open. "I'm building a new car. Isn't it grand?"
And there, in the middle of his room was a full-sized four door stationwagon with wooden sides. Only the bumper remained to be attached.
I did not ask him any questions. I just spun on my heals and headed back towards my own room which was a wall away from his, fearing every new sound and smell of exhaust fumes, knowing that sooner or later, that car would burst through the wall of my room.
an empty brown bottle
near the head of
a frayed human form
in a fetal position
drained of hope,
a squatting figure
stares from the eyes
in his black face
a pair of Gucci boots
at a ninety degree
by Sally Gricourt
April 29, 1998
They brought Sharon roses for her birthday, men and women who could barely afford to make rent monthly, who have been struggling under the state and federal threat to ruin their lives, welfare veterans, whose livelihood has been challenged by jealous rich, who cannot bear the thought that someone, anyone, might have slipped through their net feeding the infernal capitalistic slave machine.
Sharon has been assigned the arduous task of preparing these souls for their enslavement, changing their status from slaves of the handout machine to slaves of labor, and thus, each must learn the rules of the new game, to change over from making babies in order to increase their monthly allotment to kissing the ass of some boss.
Many of these people were shuffled through the school system, passed along even though they hadn't learned anything, or learned so little they could not function, victimized by poverty, vicious parents, prejudice, illness, and each other, caught up in that monstrous life cycle of the street where sins are twisted into virtues, and people take pride in their ignorance.
Sharon was assigned some of the worst, those people who did least well in the preliminary tests and could not handle traditional classes again, being disruptive or distracted, being too ground down under society's heal to care much about learning, about themselves, or about what happened to them. Most of them would never have come to Sharon's class on their own, without the threat of forced immediate loss of welfare, and the potential starvation of their children.
Sharon finds the whole task beyond her, as all of those who attempt to save lives, do, struggling to make up for 12 or more years of bad education with six months of basic skills, she trying to make it possible that these people can pass the test that will allow them to seek jobs later -- neither she nor they aware of what happens if they don't pass. But at the same time, Sharon tries to give them tools that will allow them to learn on their own, lessons in self-education which is not part of the curriculum intended, but which she must include or else feel she failed them.
And they, apparently touched by the effort, apparently needing to make it clear just how they feel about her, digging deep into nearly empty pockets to find money for roses, so that Sharon -- on her 43 birthday -- would know they appreciate the effort, even if six months or a year from now, they can't live up to the expectations.
They just needed to let her know.
Quiet! Do not disturb
the air. Your nosy jostling
is hardly fitting for this night
through which we wait
to hear the sound sent
from the tallest scent of smoke,
for we would hear the high
clean trumpet thrilling
its perennial message to us.
Look at all the stars
assembled in silence, waiting
for what will not raise
the slightest tremor in our ears.
The stars are all foregathered
on this midnight, gleaming.
It will come, piercing,
like the sharpest of needles.
Listen at this crucial hour!
by Barbara Holland
by Larry Greene
Have machines taken over America? Are people so dependent now on technology that we cannot function without them or -- worse -- want to live without them?
That is the fundamental vision Kurt Vonnegut gave in Player Piano, a novel designed to predict what would happen in the future from a author who was then writing in the 1960s. Like many writers of that generation, Vonnegut was picking up on the threads of a newly emerging society and attempted to follow them through the confusion to a possible end.
In this book, he predicted a world in which people would be controlled by the mechanized helpers once believed to make life easier, a vision not so different from the one presented in Terminator, except that instead of fighting the imposing takeover by the technology revolution, humanity opened its arms to it, accepting this fate as it accepts all negative fates, as inevitable.
While Vonnegut's vision has not panned out completely as he predicted, in many ways, he was more right than wrong, and may not have gone far enough in exaggerating how addicted human kind would become to the so-called tools of technology.
Both the vision and the reality start off with the Post World War period of the 1940s, when the promise of the 1939 New York World's Fair began to take a twisted and shadowy shape, the glitter of modern society bringing with it a terrible and heinous underside.
One of the chief concerns of the post World War Two world had much to do with the sudden shift from a war economy to one of peace.
How did one gear down from a production level high enough to defeat Hitler and Japan?
During the war, revolutions in mass production came about as a matter of necessity, and those same techniques looked over the returning veterans like dark clouds.
But other clouds existed as well.
World War Two wasn't totally fought overseas, but also in the consciencenesss of America as well. The hatred of Jews that had run mad in Germany had also been apart of our lives, too, less vocal perhaps, but there just the same.
Workers in American had also battled management over livable wages, better working conditions and fewer hours.
None of these problems went away with the end of war, nor did the masters of industry suddenly become benevolent. But the war had weaken the traditional Left, deflating the efforts of the communists who had served such a vital part of the labor movement -- just as Vietnam would later do to the New Left as the country moved into the 1970s, and the children who had preached peace learned to enjoy the capitalistic high life.
Tired souls returning from overseas decided instead to lay down their arms here, and abroad, raise families, little sensing how they really lost the fight.
Those that refused to give up after the World War saw a dim future for the working class. The advent of machines (and in our time, Micro-chips) meant massive changes in the fundamental labor force, resulting in what they foresaw as massive unemployment. The growing economy hid much of the true effect as predictions of these left-oriented holders-on for a robotized world failed to materialize.
Or rather -- was delayed until the beginning of the 1980s.
In many ways, Vonnegut wrote about the Reagan era and what came later rather than the past in which this novel is set, writing of a society in which machines become more important than the people that run them. For that matter, the machines that seemed so wonderful after the war would cease to serve humanity at all, instead, would enslave it.
This slavery would bear none of the odious, power-crazed outbursts of robotic horror stories so prevalent in the 1960s, but with a kind of most benevolent hand, machines cooing over human kind, telling us how much we really need machines to live our lives.
Vonnegut, writing in 1952, believed as George Orwell and others did that the machine's take over of America for the mid-1960s and early 1970s, but failed to take into account the sudden population explosion which created a social management nightmare, and a new consciousness that the right could not control. Middle class children, guilt ridden over their sudden opportunity to succeed, began to look back towards the even poorer and more excluded people and wished them to get a foothold on the ladder of success as well. Students began to fight for black and poor rights off campus.
Most of the battles fought on campus during that time were not so much anti-war as anti-poverty, fighting against the privileged conditions the campus promised them while the same campus took over more and more of the ghetto. In 1968, Columbia University, was one of the biggest slum lords in New York City.
But the prediction was not in error.
These children of the 1960s soon became the young consumers of the 1970s, and then members of families in the 1980s, they grew conservative, and so consumed by their consumption, few noticed the encroachment of the machine again, how technology was moving in to take over their lives, reducing the salaries of working class back to what it had been before World War Two -- machines making themselves indispensable, from telephones to copy machines, from copy machines to fax machines, from fax machines to answering machines, from answering machines to computers, beepers, and now most recently, cellular telephones, each steps taking humans deeper into the machine's steady grasp.
These machines, as Vonnegut seems them, will serve humanity to death, casting once productive human beings into non-productive, unenlightened jobs: the central presumption taken straight out of modern education which rates children according to IQ test or SATs. Most urban schools actually operate on two or three levels, tracks as they are call, giving a better brand of education to those which the tests deem worthy.
In this novel, Vonnegut writes about two kinds of fate for those who aren't mentally qualified to operate machines: the army and the community service organization he calls Reeks and Wrecks -- who are assigned to fill pot holes, clean streets, mow lawns and such, the kind of work now assigned to those poor fools being cast off welfare in the Clinton era.
As accurate as Vonnegut's vision was of the Post Reagan era, he missed an important detail. Humanity is not separated solely intelligence, but by wealth as well as color, language-use. Under Reagan, barriers to education began to rise, and proposals developed to keep poor children from ever reaching college, requiring first some kind of military training, then later -- as the right took over management of the colleges -- made the academic standards and fees too prohibitive for middle or poor class students in an era where there was no longer a GI Bill.
The 1980s changed the rules of the game. Labor too well paid because of tough unions became the target of abuse, and the reason for increasing mechanization. While media painted the 1960s activists into selfish, un-American spoiled kids, the masters of industry slowly grabbed more and more of the wealth, dowsizing, or moving their companies to places south or out of the country where labor would work for less, and replacing jobs with robots and computers.
The wealthy, of course, would find no barriers to providing their children with a decent education, and not only did they maintain their strangle-hold on the colleges and universities of quality such as Brown, Harvard, Georgetown, etc., they now made it impossible for the poor to get into the lesser colleges.
The high unemployment of the early 1980s made military service a bargain to those too poor to climb out of the ghetto any other way.
"These kids in the Army now," says one character from Vonnegut's book, "That's just the place to keep them off the street and out of trouble, because there isn't anything else to do with them. And the only chance they'll ever get to be anybody is if there's a war. That's the only chance in the world they've got of showing anybody they lived and died, and for something, by God!"
Then, the post cold war reduction in the military eliminated that option for many, and in fact, gave rise to standards to gain entry into the military as far as criminal records and intelligence. Poor children, who had trouble with the law during their youth, could not hope to use even the military as a way out. And those who could not learn anything in ghetto schools, found themselves without a military option as well.
Vonnegut predicted the rise of Ronald Reagan even as far back as 1952 as a president who would come to the White House "directly from a three hour television program.." with a "... trace of a Western drawl." By the late 1960s, many people understood that American was destined to have a Hollywood President sooner or later. But Vonnegut shaped his vision a decade earlier, and may even had Reagan in mind when he described his president:
"He wasn't any scientist, but just plan folk, standing here, humble before this great new wonder of the world, and that he was here because American plain folks had chosen him to represent them at occasions like this, and that, looking at this modern miracle, he was overcome with a feeling of deep reverence and humility and gratitude... all the gorgeous dummy had to do was read whatever was handed to him on state occasions; to be suitably awed and reverent, as he said, for all the ordinary, stupid people who'd elected him to office."
The miracle the fictional president referred to, of course, was the computer, but even Vonnegut could not imagine the total impact of the computer on modern civilization, as Orwell had failed in describing the full impact of television as a propaganda tool. The Persian Gulf War, the computer war, and the Internet, were as much science fiction to his vision as his fiction was to the world of 1952, and even a visionary of his stature could not have predicted the drug-like-addiction America has developed to this emerging technology, or how imprisoned people have become by it.
Copyright ©1998 A.D. Sullivan
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