If you love, adore the moon. If you rob, steal a camel.

Stories for the Long Silk Road

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Donal Mahoney: School Days

Now that Danny McCarthy had grandchildren in grammar school, he knew up from experience there were problems in education in the 21st century. When his own kids were in school, in the Seventies and Eighties, there were problems but nothing like the problems of today. And when Danny himself was in school back in the Forties and Fifties, almost all the problems in and out of the classroom were manageable as far as Danny could recall. 

In the Forties and Fifties, problems in school were largely behavioral, not academic. Danny and his classmates learned the basics of grammar and mathematics in grammar school, did well enough in high school, and then joined the Army or the Marines unless they were one of the few whose families had enough money to send them to college. Going to college in Danny's neighborhood wasn't really held in high esteem. The goal was to get a good job, maybe with the police force or the fire department or to catch on with one of the trades. If that didn’t work out, you joined the service and hoped you didn’t get sent to Korea.

Behavioral problems, as far as Danny remembered, were handled far more effectively back in those good old days. The methods back then may not have been politically correct by the standards of today but Danny himself was proof positive that the ancient methods worked. He was retired now and could boast that he had raised a large family and had never been arrested when he was an adolescent or an adult. Not all of his grandchildren, sadly, could say the same thing. Times had changed and they were still changing. 

It's not that Danny had been a goody-goody when he went to school. Indeed, something had been ajar in Danny from birth, that much he knew. At the very least he was hyperkinetic as a kid but back in the Forties and Fifties, hyperkinesis was a disease the nuns in his grammar school knew how to remedy. The medicine was a three-cornered ruler waved over a student's head while the nun explained up close and personal whatever rule the misbehaving student had broken. 

Back in those days, the student was guilty until proven innocent and that never happened as far as he could recall. He and his classmates were always involved in shenanigans of one kind or other but never anything illegal except maybe for dumping garbage cans in alleys on the eve of Halloween. No kid would dump them on Halloween itself because adults stayed up late on that night to watch their property. 

Danny's father certainly didn't think Danny was innocent the evening his teacher called the house and asked his father to come over to the convent to discuss Danny's latest incident. He was in fourth grade at the time and he remembers his father and him walking the six blocks over to the convent in silence, his father still in his smudged work clothes after having spent another day in the alleys climbing poles to fix electrical problems for people on the South Side of Chicago. 

An immigrant from Ireland, his father was fortunate to have a trade which put him at the higher end of their lower-middle class neighborhood. Danny had never wanted for anything but he had no luxuries either. He got a baseball mitt at the proper age and a brand-new Schwinn bike when he was old enough to ride one. A Schwinn bike back then was the Cadillac of bicycles. You rode right past all those kids stuck with Monarchs, which were not that bad bikes but lacked the panache of a Schwinn. 

Danny cannot recall the particular offense that brought his father to the convent that evening. It could have been any one of a number of things in that Danny was eclectic in how he chose to act out. But he remembers sitting in a chair in the convent living room, hands folded in his lap, while the nun took his father to another room to inform him of what Danny had done. 

"Sister," he heard his father bellow through the closed door, "if that boy does it again or does anything like it, you give him a good wallop and then call me and I'll give him another one--maybe a couple--when he gets home. He's not here to make trouble. He's here to learn so he can go to college and not have to work in the alleys like me."

After hearing that conversation, Danny straightened out quite a bit because although the nuns didn't scare him, his father certainly did. After all, his father had been expelled from Ireland by the British at age 18 after he had been caught running guns for the Irish Republican Army. They caught him at 16 and kept him in prison until 18 and then put him on a boat for America. His first job in America was as a gravedigger and later as a boxer. When he finally caught on with Commonwealth Edison in Chicago, he had an opportunity to learn electricity as a trade. For the next 40 years he earned a good living. 

Danny, as a result of his father's employment and frugality, had the benefit of a good education--19 years of it, in fact--in good private schools. It didn't hurt, either, that they were Catholic schools because although Danny was never a holy roller, it helped in the formation of his character to know that there was a Being who knew more about life than the nuns or his father.

In time Danny learned just how far he could go in creating commotion in the classroom before the nun would call his father to come down to the convent. Certain acts only required that he leave the classroom and go kneel in the middle of the hall outside the classroom door, not far from the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which stood at the end of the hall. The nuns and the students didn't worship Mary, as Catholics were so often accused of doing. But when Danny had to kneel in the hall he would always ask Mary to talk to Jesus in his behalf about a possible pardon. 

Once Danny was kneeling in the hall and staring at the statue, he knew it wouldn't be long before he would hear beads clicking on rosary hanging from the principal's habit as she came down the hall from the rear. She made her rounds of the halls several times a day to "converse" with boys--they were always boys--made to kneel in the hall. 

Danny was straight A's through the first three grades of grammar school, but in fourth grade he noticed something different about Florence Puppo as she walked up the aisle to the blackboard. Florence had begun to develop early, if you will, and so had Danny, much to his surprise. 

Suddenly Florence looked good to him in a way girls had never looked good to him before. Soon, other girls started looking good as well, and Danny began acting up a bit more. And although he still got good grades, he found himself kneeling in the hall more often, waiting to hear the click of the rosary beads and then the conversation with the principal that would always ensue. He remembers those conversations, all of them similar, clearly to this day, some six decades later.

"And what are we doing out here, Danny, kneeling in the hall on this fine morning," Sister Marie Patrick, an immigrant from Ireland herself, would always ask, having swooped around so she could stand in front of him, slapping the ruler against her palm. 

"Sister Lorraine said I should kneel out here," Danny would say, looking up at her with his altar boy face.

"And why did she ask you to do that, may I ask, Danny? Surely there must be a reason for you to be kneeling out here when you should be in the classroom learning all that you don't know."

"I was rolling marbles down the middle aisle," he would confess, "while Sister Lorraine was writing problems on the blackboard. I thought she'd blame Fred Hamm who did that last week but she knew it was me."

The principal in the school was always the toughest sounding nun in the convent. The principal had to be tough because the students were largely sons of European immigrants. Fathers and sons, although not dumb, were a bit coarse, if you will. Some of the girls may have been given piano lessons but the boys were largely left to their own devices until they had an opportunity to play sports. 

There were no Little League competitions back when Danny was in grammar school. A kid just tried his best to make the school team and then went with the team to different neighborhoods to play against teams from other schools. There was no adult to manage the team, although parents would sometimes show up for a home game.

Delinquency and vandalism were not a problem, but fist fights between kids from different schools often occurred and the fights had to be fair. If one kid kicked his opponent, kids from both teams would jump on him and the cheater's reputation would be lost for life. There was no way to repair it. Decades later now, Danny remembers the kid who kicked him. Even better, he remembers what happened to him. Fair is fair, on a ball field and in life, Danny always believed.

To this day, Danny can't remember ever getting thumped with the ruler Sr. Marie Patrick carried through the hallways. Usually their conversation would end with her telling him which room to report to after school. Then she would lift him off his knees by the ear and lead him back into the classroom and usher him to his desk and drop him in it. He can still see the other kids smiling, some with approval for the commotion he had created, others with disdain for what he had done. Usually the boys were unanimous in their approval and the girls far less so. 

Today, as he looks at his grandchildren and their classmates, Danny has absolutely no bad feelings about the discipline he experienced when he was in school. Any punishment he received he absolutely deserved. Except for the day in 1952 when a nun put his bicycle in the basement of the convent because he had been riding it around the small playground during the lunch hour, endangering, she said, the children in kindergarten playing tag. 

The nuns held his bike hostage for three days. Danny  had a paper route after school and he needed that bike. Not every eighth grader had a paper route down 63rd Street from St. Louis Ave. to Kedzie Ave. Just Danny. He gave it up the summer after 8th grade to wash dishes for 40 cents an hour in Crilly's Diner. He also got two cheeseburgers every shift, bigger and better than anything served today at McDonald's. 

Looking back after all these years, Danny knows now that working in Crilly's Diner was one of the best jobs he ever had. And having those nuns leading him by the ear through grammar school was a real boon. They prepared him for college and the real world. But now there are hardly any nuns teaching school, he reminded his wife last night. If there were, he told her, he doubts that he'd have to go downtown this afternoon and get his grandson, Rory, out of juvenile detention. 

Danny's retired and he's willing to take care of the matter because Rory's parents say they can't get off work. They have jobs at least, he reminded his wife who said she thought Rory’s father should be the one to go get him. That's what fathers do, she said.

Danny reminded his wife that having a job in today’s economy is a very good thing. Other young parents in the neighborhood had been looking for work for a long time. What Rory needed, Danny said, was Sr. Marie Patrick to lead him through life by the ear for a couple of years. 

"Forget about all this 'Time Out' stuff," Danny said. It would never have worked with him. His wife, who knew him in grammar school, stifled a laugh and agreed. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Tammy T. Stone: The Man of Haridwar Station

The details take on mythic proportions. A tiny girl, aided by her mother who holds her hands from behind, squeaks little steps on shoes designed to make noise so that neither shoes nor child ever get lost. A group of young men huddle together like lovers on a mat made from the refuse of a goods packaging factory. They hug each other with one arm and hold their cellphones with the other, all of them, synchronized like chorus girls. Across from them, I can see the bottom half of a woman in an orange saree and I almost mistake her for a sadhu – India’s orange-clad men who have renounced all material possessions in their search for spiritual illumination.

People come and go. We’ve been at the Haridwar train station for over two hours now, having arrived early on a bus from Rishikesh. It was the smallest bus we’ve been on, or rather, the bus with the smallest, most uncomfortable seats. And this is saying a lot. We’ve been to India three times now, and altogether, this is our thirteenth month. We just finished a month-long yoga teacher training course and are on our way to Dharamsala, high up in the Himalayas, where we plan to do some intense meditation. We’re on the waiting list for a 10 day silent retreat. You do a lot of waiting in India. Most of the time it’s worth the wait.

For a month we’ve been sequestered in a yoga hall with five other students and our guru-ji (respected teacher), a Ph.D in yoga and a brilliant practitioner. We’ve been, for the most part, removed from India at large. Except for the occasional run-in on our few days off with other tourists, a self-proclaimed schizophrenic seeking rupees and a persistent drum seller on the main drag, we have been breathing clean air, eating sattvic (yogic, pure vegetarian) food and sleeping early. All this is a startling contrast to the two months of our trip prior to arriving in the safe haven of Rishikesh’s vast mountains and yoga spaces.

Being back in the real India is a bit of a shock, and nothing is more shockingly Indian than its train stations, thronging and humming with life 24 hours a day. Everyone has their own space but everyone watches each other. People eat, spit, sleep, talk, stare, fight and basically live their lives right out there in the open, despite, or maybe because of the crowds. It’s miraculous even as it’s exhausting. I look up and see someone I’m sure is Caucasion, only he’s in full Indian garb and has the casual confidence of a local. The albinos here always remind me how readily we recognize – and judge – people by the colour of their skin, with all the horrible things this implies.

To my right, an old man sits in an effortless half-lotus potion. There’s bright pink dye running down the back of his white shirt, dried now, and he wears a pink scarf that doesn’t seem to be the source of the dye problem, this time anyway. Ladies chat together on one bench and men on another, always separate, always preferring the company of their own, directly in front of my view. It’s the man between these two benches, by a post that he has claimed, who catches my attention and captivates me the most.

He arrives with a wooden stick and a bag, and sits for awhile, leaning against the post. A great struggle begins. He’s gotten it into his head to remove the contents of his bag. It’s a tight fit and the stuff doesn’t come out easily. But the man’s resilient. He bends over the bag; this doesn’t seem easy for him. He’s an older man, at least 60 in my estimation, though it’s hard to tell here sometimes. He wears a long-sleeved, pale yellow shirt in the Indian style, long and loose, and a white cloth as his pants, or skirt. His scuffed black sandals are neatly stacked by the post. He’s rather meticulous, I can tell. He stands on another mat made from faulty goods packaging – crinkly and shiny, these are common seating aids at train stations; people sell them here for a few rupees apiece at most of the stations I’ve been to.

The man struggles with the bag for a long time. His fingers shake and he doesn’t seem too stable. I want to help him but something stops me. He has a pride about him, a fierce independence that’s familiar to me but I’m not sure from where. Does he remind me of the many older, homeless Indians I’ve seen who have to fend for themselves in adverse circumstances? Is it my grandmother he’s recalling, who resisted help at every turn as she aged and succumbed to eventual mental illness? Is it both, and this man is bridging cultures, worlds for me? There’s something so sad about this struggle he’s engaged in. You almost never see people on their own here. People move, breathe, congregate and travel in packs (the homeless notwithstanding and, tragically, even here, they are not as visible as the rest). As I write this, a family nearby numbers seven – five of them are on two adjoining benches and two sit on the ground in front of the rest with the luggage, on a pink and white cloth. It’s so common to see large families travelling together that the old man’s solitude is striking in contrast.

Is he a widow? Never married? A recluse? Is he sick? It’s impossible to tell. He’s still bent over his bag, trying to retrieve its contents. His bare feet are dirty, long and lean, his calf muscles a good size. Maybe he was really strong once. He wears a black hat that might distinguish him in some way – caste? – but I’m not sure how. Now he’s approaching the frailty of old age. His white hair stands out too – not only out of his cap, but as unusual in a country where most old men dye their hair black or red. It’s very rare to see white-haired men unless they’re extremely old, or sadhus/swamis/gurus living a more natural lifestyle – if you can call dreadlocks, extreme austerities and constant near-nudity natural, and this depends highly on your conditioning and your point of view in the world.

The man’s fingers fumble as he tries to lower the bag around some kind of blanket, the object of his desire at the moment. There’s something else in the bag, something metallic – a bowl, maybe – that’s stopping the bag from easily falling away from the blanket. He pauses to take some water from a plastic bottle and then lifts the bag again, this time from the bottom. Success. He holds has a really pretty purple and orange blanket, thick and cozy-looking, in his hands. With great care he unrolls it and, over the course of a few minutes, neatly spreads it on the mat, which is perpendicular to the post. He kneels down and it looks like he’s praying, his back to me, but I don’t think he is. There is something staunchly atheistic, anarchic even, about him to me.

Now the bag is in his hands and he wipes something off the blanket. Then the bag itself catches his attention. He removes the bowl and a few other things from it, and moves over to the bench on his knees. The family is aware of him and ignoring him at the same time – the former is informed conjecture on my part. He empties the contents of the bag onto the ground underneath the bench. All I can see emerging onto the floor are a few orange peels, but he takes these into his hands and eventually puts them back into the bag. He crawls back to his new home and puts his scattered objects back into the bag. He then spends some time arranging the bag just so – here, he reminds me of my grandmother, who also used to arrange things at great length, and who used to say ‘just so’ to mean ‘exactly this way, to perfection’ – and now he has the perfect pillow.

Finally – wearily? – he sits down, back against the bag/pillow and the post. I feel I’m watching a lone king surveying his land, obtusely and indifferently, from his lair, with the entirety of his existence. He doesn’t rest for long. Minutes later he’s made his way to the far reaches of his blanket, where he neatly folds the edges so the blanket aligns exactly with the packaged goods mat. Satisfied, he crawls back to his pillow, and sits down again to observe his surrounds.

We marvel: he must have only these few things in his whole life. What freedom! Where is he going? Will he stay the night? Who will greet him at his next destination? (He seems utterly without human connection). How will he get the blanket back into the bag? Why isn’t he, like most, staring at us foreigners?

A sadhu sets up shop next to him. He appears much wealthier than the old man. His hair is thick and clean and he has metallic food containers and a glass to drink from. The two don’t speak.

The old man starts playing with a few rupee bills. He rolls them in his hands, over and over. The action is absentminded and deliberate at the same time, somehow.

“Chai. Chai chai chai. Chaiiiiii.”

There are two chai, or tea wallahs (men, sellers) in this part of the station, carrying their heated chai in a metallic holder, and paper cups. So far the old man has not said a word, which I find hard to believe now that I think about it, since I feel I’ve been in dialogue with him for over an hour now. Still silently, he beckons one of the wallahs over. He indicates that he wants a chai with a nod of the head and holds out one of his few bills. I can see it’s taped together in a few different places. Indians are obsessed with clean bills and usually won’t accept torn ones. This wallah is no exception. He discards the bill and walks away. I try to read the old man’s face but get no reaction. A few minutes later he tries again with the second wallah and is rejected for the second time.

We discuss buying him a chai because a chai is such a simple thing to get and such a pleasure to consume but again, we’re thrown by his independence. Some people don’t respond well to being helped, and we can’t tell if he’s one of them. I think of the ladies I saw in Amsterdam’s red light district over fifteen years ago, showing off everything from behind glass. Music comes out to us on the street, but our voices don’t reach them, and there’s no chance of communicating with them, finding out who they are, though everything is superficially visible. Here too, he’s very visible, but it’s an impenetrable division. There is him and there is us.

While he’s being rejected for his chai, an older woman who appears to be talking loudly to herself, spreads a mat on the floor next to me – I’m on a bench. I can see what her packaged-goods mat references: BAR CLIF: CHOCOLATE BROWNIE. I’m guessing she’s never had one of these in her life, but its packaging is now her throne, and indeed, like the old man, there’s something regal about her. She wears a blue saree, has wild grey hair and has an adorable feistiness about her. Where the old man is a master of detail she is thoroughly rough around the edges, almost graceless, except for the dignity and pride that pour out of her like a salve. I can almost feel it soothing my skin. She throws a large bag on the mat and flutters around, chatting to herself. The old man, meanwhile, has laid down on his side for a few minutes, before thinking better of it. He sits back up and catches the old woman’s eye. This is all it takes. She zooms over to him and kneels down, displaying a more perfect posture than I saw during an entire month of intensive yoga. The man is unmoved. He watches her with eyes that seem nonchalant and occasionally gracious while she talks and talks and pats him on shoulder now and then.

Eventually it seems he’s had enough. He says something imperceptible to my ears – his first words of the evening – and she abruptly gets up, nodding in understanding, and says her goodbyes. He then touches his forehead and spreads his hand across his face as she gets up and leaves. She wanders away, sometimes returning to her brownie mat and mostly leaving it alone. We’re in the anteroom of the station, between the front entrance and the platform, where most of the action is taking place. She disappears around the corner to the platform area and we don’t see her again until we have to leave to catch our train.

The old man lies down again, but when I get back from buying a Sprite, he’s sitting with a seller of some strange-looking black plastic boxes all hanging from one central piece of string like a mobile. He’s leaning on the blanket; he’s been invited into the old man’s sacred space. The old man is eating something out of a newspaper. How did I miss this? Where did he get the food? From the black plastic box seller? Did he pay for it? With the taped 10 rupee bill?

What did the woman-in-blue say to him and will they talk again, these two denizens of this summer train station night?

I’m still here, but I’m already nostalgic for these monumental dramas that seem to have no end in this vast, multitudinous country. And this is just what I’ve seen, observed, let alone imagined. The old man chats briefly with the sadhu to his right and asks one of the family members on his left to help him open a little white plastic vile, giving him a large grin before spitting on the floor under the bench. Now he’s laid down to attempt sleep again. I will board my train and inflate my soul with his dreams.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Kit Duggan: Marshmallow Frozen Night Night: Parts 1-3


David refused medication but once, at night, before the blood shrieking lady down the hall started up
After the last of the tapioca and ice creams had been dealt
An intricate arrangement of a dozen or so pillows snugged him sleep along with the mellow yellow hydrocodone splotch and marshmallow frozen night night
Rising to the flash bang mornings I would often announce looks like another day in paradise
Eh, David?

He forced a sitcom plaster of mood
Finding farce and picking places
To dry slop sarcasm or comic vitriol down his slack gullet

We clash chess and I am confident then outmaneuvered as the duel squares expanded in entrancing enchanting gallivanting angling hexagons for supplanting aggrandizing lexicon.

He told me never challenge an ex-con.


In our near-sterilized and medicated paradise, my friend David acted a child who crowned himself king of the sand box

Within this rock smash grain conglomerate square he built castles of contrived comic belligerence and dug tunnels inches deep that led no place though he often insisted the opposite.

He taught me the crucial variation between Registered Nurses and their counter-part Registered Nurse Assistants

R.N’s bring pills at strict intervals and are all buisness/R.N.A’s have to bring low-fat ice cream or no-fat tapioca or diet soda whenever you press the red button.

He illustrated how to occasionally hide coveted opioids under tongue so they think you took them when you really never did

Then sedulously explained how a good roommate might remove it from his gob and generously plop it in the palm of his paralytic counter-part.

Little bit of spit won’t kill nobody.


Was it envy emitting from the brooding gaze of David when I began to rise covertly with daring frequency in late November?

How I ripped myself out of bed as if rusted anchor from a nest of ancient coral each jagged morning

While he darkly muttered obscenities regarding the opening salvos of would be-Sinatra R.N Tony’s routine sun rise serenade

"Here goes the prick again. You know, I see you Peter Parker from bed to sink there, kid. Tsk Tsk…Still got those yellow socks. Going to mangle the new hardware so soon, huh?" He slopped from the serrated edge of his slumber crust mouth.

"They ran out of beige, is all. I’m not going to let the progression of my come back be dictated by the degree of neon wool around my feet, thanks. Or you, David, for that matter." I managed to exhale or sputter while grasping for a small protruding hook meant for coats on the east wall.

Would-be Sinatra Tony then burst in to our room, pushing a creaky cart bejeweled with touch-screen computer monitor and belting out an off-key rendition of 1954’s ‘Fly Me to The Moon’.

"…Let me play among those stars
Let me see what spring is like
On a-Jupiter and -"

His usurpingly gay energy is abruptly met with a thick, gurgling moan expelled from the gullet of David.

"I need you to shut it fast with the crooning before noon, Franky."

"Only you and a few other non- catatonics ever have complaints about the wake-up show." Beamed Tony, glancing at his notes while applying latex gloves.

"Rest assured - we’re a small but concerned minority, Tony." I offer from the sink after emphatically ejecting tooth paste. “Can’t you ever sing something a little more up beat? It’s always love and eternity with you."

David snorted and returned to nesting within the outfit of pillows adorning his custom order low pressure slumber station.

"That’s what the older folks need to hear," Tony shrugged, turning his attention sinkwards. “And what exactly are YOU doing? I know I’m not seeing a high risk kid skating about willy nilly unsupervised on MY shift."

"I ain’t high risk. Wrong socks, is all. I can’t take all this protection!" I exclaim bitterly while watching a bloodied string of tooth floss weave like confetti down to its waste basket grave.

"That’s what they all say," Grinned Tony, extending an arm towards me and removing a thick set of keys from his scrub pocket.

"Tell you what…Let me give the assist back to bed and I’ll cough up something yellow I happen to know you won’t have a problem taking. "

"It’s either valium or syphilis, kid. Could be both around this festering joint." Came the muffled gruff voice of my roommate.

Wincing, I relent and shakily reach for the latexed magenta fingers of the now softly crooning male nurse.

"In other words - - hold my hand."

Kit Duggan blogs at http://wedrownpebbles.tumblr.com

Silk Road Mantra

by Suchoon Mo

bury me not

in the lone Silk Road

I go and go

from west to east

I go and go

from east to west

bury me not

in the lone Silk Road


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