Sunday, January 18, 2015

Part II of our Ireland trip with Noam Chomsky - Cork (An excerpt)


Tis you, tis you, must go, and I must bide.

On her birthday in the early 1990’s, my brother Paul announced his gift to our mother.  “You have six months to take a trip anywhere in the world. Wherever you choose.  I’ll pay for everything for you and one other person.”

After thinking for a minute, my mother said, “Maybe I’ll go to Las Vegas. Or maybe Florida!”
            
Paul cocked his head to one side and scrunched his brow, looking pained, and repeated himself.  “Florida?  Ma, you can go anywhere in the world, not just the US.  How about Europe?  Would you like to see Paris, or London, or Rome?”

I interrupted before she could answer, “Or Ireland! Go to Cork, where your grandmother was born. Wouldn’t that be a dream?”  Our great-grandmother, Ellen Walsh - everyone called her Memé - was the first person at our house when my mother came home with each of her four babies, a box of donuts squeezed under her ample arm and the smell of talcum powder trailing behind her until our entire apartment smelled of it.  Memé was buxom in her blue and white size-18 polka dot dress, her chunky-heeled black tie shoes of the kind the nuns wore at my mother’s childhood parochial school clunking up the stairs so she could get a good look at my new baby sister, Denise.  Memé arrived by bus from what I imagined as a child was a faraway place, though years later I learned she lived in the next door town of Watertown, where I live now.  Memé died when my mother was in her late-thirties, and I was twelve.
            
“Why would I want to go to Ireland?” she said. “Most of those people are dead.”
            
I was constantly amazed – no, stunned – by these proclamations that were part of my mother’s unique, sparkling, and sometimes sardonic personality.

“What do you mean by those people,” I asked. “Your grandmother’s family?”

“Yes, Beverly!  Why would I travel all that way to visit someone who’s dead?”

Despite my mother’s disinterest, Cork remained at the top of my bucket list, so when Noam invited Laura and me to take the trip with him, to help keep the schedule intact and also enjoy a little of the Irish country, we had accepted without hesitation.  First we visited Dublin, and a few days later we arrived by train in County Cork.
**

Just an hour or so after our arrival in Cork, Laura and I unpacked a few things and threw on clean clothes for Noam’s meeting with a group of people who had worked at the Vita Cortex factory. During their sit-in a year before, while at risk of being laid off without pay, Noam wrote letters of encouragement and a statement of support via striker Darren O’Keefee, the spokesperson and organizer of his group.
            
We met Noam in the lobby, and after brief introductions, the three of us followed Darren to a conference room. When we entered, close to a dozen men and women stood quietly in unison. Laura and I took seats in the back, where we could observe unobtrusively, but to be honest, the wordless greeting had moved me, and I felt the need for some distance. Noam approached the strikers, who introduced themselves to him one at a time, speaking softly – a little out of our range.

I was pulling a pad of paper and pen from my bag when Noam called out to me from their midst, 
“Bev, this man is a Walsh!'  I rushed over and took his hand and introduced myself, asking whether he had an ancestor named Ellen Walsh. He said there are so many all over Cork, and in Waterford, that he couldn’t be sure. The magic of my long-awaited dream of meeting my Irish relatives mingled with the reality that I hadn't done my homework, but standing here in a conference room in Cork, firmly clasping the hand of a man named Alan Walsh, was enough for the moment.
            
The strikers looked out of place seated in the chrome and black swivel chairs surrounding the large polished maple conference table.  Someone had placed two pitchers of water at even intervals on the rectangular tabletop, and an inverted drinking glass at each seat.  We knew that the group had reached a settlement since Noam's involvement, but he wanted to learn the details of the sit in, and see how they were faring with the settlement behind them. I was fixed on their faces, their gestures, and the way they held themselves. Some had gaps in their mouths where teeth used to be, and I wondered about their medical and dental care, assuming they lived below the standards enjoyed by many of us back home. Otherwise, this scene appeared much the same as a meeting of professors back at our Linguistics and Philosophy Department at MIT.

“Mary over there,” Darren said, pointing to her, “was one of the two female strikers.  She slept at the plant for 130 nights, right next to her machine, the one she worked on during her shifts.” 
           
“Why were you sleeping at the plant?” Noam asked, looking over at Mary.

Darren answered. “To make sure Jack Ronan’s people didn’t come in overnight and remove the equipment and empty the place out before paying us our redundancy," he said.

Ronan was the company’s owner who had laid them off from their jobs making textiles for bus and plane seats.  I had not heard the word “redundancy” in this way before – they were referring to what we would call severance pay.  I turned the pronunciation over and over in my head.  Re-doon-den-cee. I tried to remember Memé’s voice. Did she share this accent? I remembered only that she talked in a “different” way, but to my five-year-old mind, that was how old ladies (in their late sixties) spoke. I couldn’t remember whether she had a similar accent, and I could no longer ask my mother.

“And what was Jack Ronan’s response to your sleeping at the plant?” Noam asked.
            
I was again focused on the solemn faces around the table, and by their strong working hands folded on the table tops, and I missed Darren’s reply.  I eyeballed the untouched clear glass pitchers of water on the table, trying to figure out a way to move away from my own welling emotions.  Jack Ronan had been messing with these people, my people. 
           
“How did the people in the town react?  Did they support you?” Noam asked. The room was quiet – all eyes were on Noam, and they, in turn, had his full attention.
            
“Friends and neighbors supported us, even strangers. We got food from the local grocers, pizza shops brought pizza, and a local sporting goods store brought warm jackets, as there was no heat at night.”  Noam listened intently, nodding now and then. “People brought food and money to support our families, as we weren’t bringing home any pay.  Support came from all around, not just from the people in our town. Some people even sent lottery tickets. The woman at the bakery had a dying husband, so she closed the doors to her shop a month or two before the strike. When she found out my birthday was coming, she opened the bakery just to make me a special cake to share with the other strikers.
            
That was it for me - I had to get up. I handed Laura my note pad and whispered, “Write down the main points,” and I moved to the table and reached for one of the water pitchers, and began filling glasses. Each person looked up at me in turn with grateful eyes, just for the pouring, and I was out of the frying pan and into the fire. One set of blue eyes the exact color of my mother’s, a sparkling light gray-blue, looked up at me in gratitude, and I had to look away.

Afterwards, outside the conference room, Laura and I hugged Noam, and I told him, "You made me cry again."  He looked amused. I offered to hold his papers while he took off his jacket.

“I’m giving them to Laura,” he said, handing them to her. “I don’t want you to get tear stains all over them.”

I never fail to be comforted by Noam’s ability to witness hardship with complete attention and compassion, to listen and take action without letting the pain of it seep into him. At least that’s how it seems to me.  As a therapist, Laura is also able to listen to people’s stories without feeling drained by the end of her day. She had cried in the conference room, too, but I decided to let her disclose that if she chose.  Plus, we were in a hurry. We had exactly one hour to shop for rings.

**
To be continued

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Unbroken - for Barry in Portland, who lives outside (An excerpt)

Barry called one winter evening, months after our first conversation, and although I was literally closing up the office for the day, I felt compelled to ask him a question that had been on my mind since our early chats, when he first called to ask me to convey a message to "the good Professor Chomsky." “Barry, since it's so hard to outside when the weather is unbearable, have you ever thought of trying to find funding for a subsidized apartment?  You never mention going into a shelter for the night.”

Barry said, “I don’t like to spend time in a shelter,but sometimes I do if it’s one of those really cold nights.”  I heard a note of panic in his otherwise calm voice. “It makes me feel penned in and jailed.  I would rather stay outside.”

“But isn’t it impossible to keep warm outside in winter?”

“Oh,” he said, sounding pleased with himself, “remember that I have this very warm coat.  A couple of weeks ago someone in my church asked me if I wanted it, but I said no, as I thought someone else might have left it by mistake and might come back for it. Well, I was down in the basement later on that day, sweeping the floor, and there it was! Someone had thrown it in the trash!  So I figured it was just meant to be mine!”

“But I have to admit I was pretty cold without that coat. Why, sometime, I don’t know, I think last month, or maybe three weeks ago, let’s see, well, anyway, I was so cold, I was shivering and shivering, and I shivered so hard that a piece of my tooth came off right in my mouth.  I spit it out and wrapped it in some paper and put it in my backpack, and thought I would take it to the nice dentist down the street who sometimes works on my teeth for free.  Once I got a cleaning, and the next time a root canal and a crown.  Can you believe it?”

I said I really thought that was amazing, and I meant it.

“I don’t have a lot of teeth, having not brushed, being homeless and all,” he said, “so it isn’t going to add up to all that much. Can you believe it Bev, she knows I can’t pay her, but she works on my teeth anyhow!”  Barry giggled like a girl to think of his good fortune.

I teetered forward and realized I was holding my breath again.  I took off my coat, gave Roxy a pat with the promise of "just another minute," and sat down at my work table to give Barry a little more of my time. I imagined that when our phone call ended, he might have to leave the warmth of the building he was calling from, though it's hard to say which of us is most uncomfortable about his living outside.

**
I talked with Barry today.  He's sleeping inside this week, and I'm grateful for that.