October 1, 2008

Cab Ride From Hell

“The Night of the Cab Ride from Hell” or “How Papo Lost the Job That He Loved” or “The Excuses Men Make” a Personal Essay of Truth * by Jesús Papoleto Meléndez

Everything always begins a few days before it actually happens…

We had come from East Harlem, New York City, to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville; an historic journey to an historical institution. This was the university system that was built by Thomas Jefferson, with the hard work of all his slaves, and where Edgar Allen Poe had attended, before dropping out after a year. Through the Universal Preparatory Program of Spanish Harlem (UPPerSPaHa), we had endeavored to bring a group of 18 high school students, nine boys and girls each, to study and otherwise hang out on the university campus, to live and work, for the first two weeks in July. We then were to go back to New York City where we would continue the program for the next three-weeks…

We had already accomplished quite a bit. With a staff of seven men and two women, made up mostly of teachers and professional artists, we had prepared a program wherein the students would be able to experience “college life” in a real university setting. We had classes in English and math, as well as studying video-making, photography and poetry.


PapoletoMany fantastic field trips were planned, like going to King’s Dominion, a whole amusement theme park that had these great rides that would scare the shit out of you and make you pee in your pants; and we were going to ride inner tubes down the James River on Saturday. We had visited Thomas Jefferson’s sprawling plantation and had toured his wonderful mansion, Monticello. It was really a marvelous home full of his great inventions. Jefferson was quite a guy, and I couldn’t help walking away with the notion, “Look what this guy built with our bare hands!” But, still, one could objectively appreciate what the man had accomplished, and the struggle of contradictions with which he had to grapple everyday of his early American life. We had also taken the students to a Confederate cemetery, where, through an iPod speaker system we played Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” blaring from the pedestal of a Confederate Soldier’s statue, while the students listened and contemplated, standing over the graves of soldiers who’d been dead for over a hundred and thirty years, then made journal entries on their thoughts and feelings. It was extremely emotional as the students somehow related the cemetery to the death of their ancestors. Yeah, we were having quite an educational experience with these kids in Virginia.

It was a great trip so far, and Mary Magdeline, the Director of Programs, who had arrived on Tuesday from New York and was joining us for the last few days of the trip, was quite impressed with how well we were working together, and what we had achieved.

Strange Fruit
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees;

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh;

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Songwriters:
Lewis Allan (Abel Meerpol);
Maurice Pearl;
Dwayne P. Wiggins.

video – Billie Holiday performs “Strange Fruit”
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4ZyuULy9zs

video – Nina Simone performs “Strange Fruit”
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MVxVa3D11n4&feature=related


So, this was it; I, a famous poet, was out and about in Charlottesville, Virginia, all by myself. Since we had visited the plaza earlier in the day with the students, in order to conduct the gentrification interviews, I had heard that at the end of the plaza there was a performance stage, where every Friday night they have bands play live music for free. So, I wanted to see this…

The moon was full and there was a planet, just to the right, Venus or Mars, I didn’t know. I remembered the previous night, where I lay on my back on the grass with a small group of the students in front of our dorm, as we looked up at all the stars we never see in the city, and picked out constellations and other celestial forms. It was just so mellow, everything. I thought that perhaps tomorrow, we could bring the kids down to hear the concert. That would be something…

Needless to say, a few days after we returned to New York, I was fired; Buñel was let go the day after that…

Other firings soon started occurring at the UPPerSPaHa headquarters.
Regarding myself, I had never been fired in my entire life, not from anything, so it came to me as quite a shock. I’m still in shock.

That’s why I began writing this in the first place; as an exercise in expressing my narrative voice; as well as for its catharsis. Thank God for Literature! I wanted to flesh-out the ill feelings that I was left with from this sour experience; to talk to myself about it, and clear some things up in my head as well as in my heart. I wanted to attempt to be as honest with myself as I could possibly be.

Nevertheless, I’ve not been pleased with how I’ve been treated by this organization. I found my dismissal rather brutal, and dismissive of all that I had helped to accomplish, in addition to being meted out quite disrespectfully. They wanted to impose a condition to my exiting, whereby I would sign a “Termination Agreement and General Release”
contract, which would have denied this narrative expression; thus proving what I enjoy saying, that “denial is always the first indication of the Truth.” I refused. They had wanted to financially short-change me of the compensation due me for my work-effort up to that point, which was quite substantial. And, as of this writing, I have yet to retrieve my personal, professional and archival belongings, which during the course of my employ as Poetry Consultant, I had brought from my home in order to better serve our students, and which I had left at my desk area when I was “let go.” Many of these articles include rare and irreplaceable signed publications and poems by the late Rev. Pedro Pietri, and others. They can’t keep these things; they don’t belong to them. They’ve refused to allow me to return to retrieve them, and have informed me that they’ve boxed them and will return them to me, just as soon as I return their laptop computer. But, I will not – not until I have seen with my own eyes what’s in those boxes. Otherwise, what’s missing will be lost. They do not have a right whatsoever to exact such a condition, when they have breached my respect for them by their aforementioned actions. I don’t trust them anymore, and, quite frankly, that pains me.

And this is actually what the most troubling issue is here. A Scepter of Insensitivity is haunting El Barrio, some mystical arrogance of administrational prudery. Perhaps, the gentrification of El Barrio, and of El Barrio’s institutions and programs – housing, educational, social, and political, et al, and etcetera – might have something to do with this? Maybe there’s something going on? Of late I’ve witnessed, as a whole slew of our people, who have dedicated their entire professional lives to the education and welfare of our children, are now questioning whether or not they have made the right life-career decision; if they’ve not squandered their lives, forfeiting instead more lucrative ventures in a capitalist system. Several such people, unassociated with this incident, have also been dismissed recently from UPPerSPaHa. They are, for the most part, Professionals in their fields with many years’ experience, now out of work, and looking for new employment, hopefully with medical and dental benefits.

Throughout the long and distinguished history of El Barrio, earlier residents of all ethnicity and cultural backgrounds have always sought to improve their living conditions. To this end, they organized themselves and have developed and sustained programs including the study and expression of the arts and culture, as well as having founded a myriad of social serving institutions. The proud residents of El Barrio acknowledge every service that’s extended them and their children; and arts and education programming are no exception to this appreciation.
We have always been well capable of administering, with love and caring, the daily services and operations of such programs and institutions.

However, now we find that many of these are being taken over by “interlopers” of one sort or another, who come into El Barrio with their classroom textbook-tested theories to try out on us – like a brand new dress for the poor, little girl of ethnic extraction – “One-Size-Fits-All” philosophy. . All that they know about “us” and the problems within our community – and how to solve them – is what they’ve read somewhere in a book. In fact, these people, whose total life-experience amounts to the adventures portrayed in the last novel they’ve read, manage to get themselves installed into executive positions of power, where, with a congenial condescension, these pedagogy “experts” dismiss our ability to identify, and our willingness to address our own needs. Their Superhero-Alta-Egos will not allow them to recognize or acknowledge our own medicinal remedies.

Haven’t they’ve stripped away enough of our community and parental rights? Haven’t they’ve done so, and then forced blame upon us when our children have lashed out against society – for lack of parental guidance and discipline? Do we really need someone else to come in and teach the village how to bring up a child?

Now, while we may express gratitude for the funding and resources provided us, it is essential to realize that we, as Human Beings, prosper further through the actionable vision of Empathy, rather than by the stagnant, albeit sincere and well-intentioned, narrow-minded charity of Sympathy. I believe that the only things that these professional interlopers know how to do are count pennies and decipher the whereabouts of the bottom-line – and that’s exactly what they’re here for. It seems like that – and to buy a newly built Condominium on one of our blocks – preferably far away from us, although still in the neighborhood, and walking distance to and from the subway.

It is with these strings attached, that these munificent souls dictate not only how the funds that they provide should be distributed (or otherwise utilized or squandered), but what can be taught, and how.

I’ve seen enough Hollywood films dealing with this “do-the-right-thing”
notion, to know what happens next. So it is that if “They” feel that our children will not benefit from the arts, then they need not be exposed to them. And, so far as I have seen of what goes on within some not-for-profit programs, it seems a Board of Directors must be established for the purpose of legitimizing the program’s mandate to “Funders” and the “Banks.” And then these Boards do everything in their power in order to prevent the staff from achieving its altruistic aims and goals. It’s like, the Board says, “Let ‘Our Program’ help your child get into college – just not Harvard, or Princeton, or Yale, or Stanford…”

So now that it is possible in El Barrio to purchase tofu and wheatgrass in the local bodegas, the questions become more relevant, rather than racist, to our survival in our own neighborhood: “Will the Gentrifiers improve the quality of our local schools by enrolling their children? Or will they devalue our property and schools’ programs, by divesting their children’s enrollment?” The truth of the matter is thus; if you’re not involved in your community, somebody else will be…

In the end, of course, it will always be our resilient kids who’ll suffer the most…

I personally know of many artists who devote themselves to their art, while diligently dedicating themselves to the work that they perform with the youth of today. Our community is replete with such natural resources as artists who are educators as well, and each of them waits patiently to be tapped before their life-assets run out without appreciation. That’s why the community must always be involved with arts and education programs, and what’s going on within their walls – to assure that our teaching artists are among the artists teaching art and culture.

Unfortunately for UPPerSPaHa, what was lost in the mayhem of the controversy was what we had undeniably achieved; we left New York City with eighteen frightened teenagers, and returned with eighteen young adults who had gained a vastly different outlook on the world around them, and by extension, American history came closer to their reality.

This is probably truer for them, than it might be with a great many of their fellow students and neighbors. We had finally “gotten to them.”
Finally, they saw us as “cool.” The obstacle that makes education difficult – “Resistance to Knowledge” – was removed from their attitude of “knowing it all” and we were able to dialogue like scientists of human nature. It was okay now, for students interested in creative writing to sit down with the poet and discuss the Universe, from micro- to macrocosm, for instance…

*Names have been changed to protect whoever believes in their innocence.

Posted by Jose at October 1, 2008 10:27 PM