If you drove west on the Chapel Hill-Greensboro Road through Snow Camp, North Carolina on Sunday, November 1, 2020, at about eleven AM, you would have passed a white chapel-looking building on your left. A few cars were parked outside, on the grass under the big old trees, which are shedding their wrinkled brown leaves after a hot green summer.
That was Spring Friends Meeting. From the outside, it looked quiet, secluded, and almost deserted. Easy to miss amid the wooded stretches and dairy farms of southern Alamance county.
But inside, it was none of those. Yes, just a handful of Quakers, or Friends, were sitting, widely-spaced and mostly masked, on its long benches. And they weren’t loud. But a lot was going on.
Diane Di Prima was an anarchist feminist Beatnik poet, who died this past weekend at 86, in San Francisco.
I didn’t really follow her work or career. But I was an early long-distance fan of the Beats, and one of her poems, part of a series of “Revolutionary Letters,” caught my attention. For my second book, Uncertain Resurrection, about the failure of Dr. King’s 1968 Poor Peoples Campaign, I included it as an epigraph and opening lament. I can still feel its sting half a century later.
Here it is, along with an excerpt from her obituary in the Washington Post:
Revolutionary Letters #19
if what you want is jobs for everyone, you are still the enemy, you have not thought thru, clearly what it means
if what you want is housing, industry (G. E. on the Navaho reservation) a car for everyone, garage, refrigerator, TV, more plumbing, scientific freeways, you are still the enemy, you have chosen to sacrifice the planet for a few years of some science fiction utopia, if what you want
still is, or can be, schools where all our kids are pushed into one shape, are taught it’s better to be “American” than black or Indian, or Jap, or PR, where Dick and Jane become and are the dream, do you look like Dick’s father, don’t you think your kid secretly wishes you did
if what you want is clinics where the AMA can feed you pills to keep you weak, or sterile, shoot germs into your kids, while Merck & Co. grows richer
if you want free psychiatric help for everyone so that the shrinks, pimps for this decadence, can make it flower for us, if you want
if you still want a piece a small piece of suburbia, green lawn laid down by the square foot color TV, whose radiant energy kills brain cells, whose subliminal ads brainwash your children, have taken over your dreams
degrees from universities which are nothing more than slum landlords, festering sinks of lies, so you too can go forth and lie to others on some greeny campus
THEN YOU ARE STILL THE ENEMY, you are selling yourself short, remember you can have what you ask for, ask for
Michael Cohen accompanied Trump on a number of trips to Las Vegas. A snippet from one such journey, from Disloyal:
Checking into the Vegas Trump Tower, I was summoned up to his suite to discuss the day’s events. Trump was in his underwear, white Hanes briefs, and a white short-sleeve undershirt, watching cable news on television. He barely seemed to register that it was unusual for a grown man to be in a state of undress in front of an employee, but there it was.
On this occasion, Trump was fresh from the shower and he hadn’t done his hair yet, as it was still air-drying. When his hair wasn’t done, his strands of dyed-golden hair reached below his shoulders along the right side of his head and on his back, like a balding Allman Brother or strung out old ’60s hippie.
I called his plane Hair Force One, for good reason. Trump doesn’t have a simple combover.
Michael Cohen describes the kickoff of the mutually self-serving “courtship” Between Trump & prominent evangelicals, who became a central pillar of Trump’s political base. From Disloyal, with rough language:
“So how did the amoral Trump come to be beloved by evangelical voters, a question that remains one of the abiding mysteries to this day?
Begin with the premise that Donald Trump hadn’t darkened the door of a church or chapel since the age of seven, as he would openly admit in his past incarnation. Places of religious worship held absolutely no interest to him, and he possessed precisely zero personal piety in his life—but he knew the power of religion, and that was a language he could speak.
This is stunning stuff — it reads like something out of an action novel. But actually they are passages from a 30-page brief issued yesterday, by retired federal judge John Gleeson.
Gleeson Relentlessly demolishes the Trump/Barr attempt to dismiss the Perjury conviction of former General Michael Flynn.
[Background: “Flynn pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the weeks before the 2016 election. Later, after cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller for nearly two years, Flynn moved to withdraw his guilty plea and allege he was set up by the FBI and coerced into pleading guilty by rogue prosecutors.
In May, the Barr Justice Department . . . moved to dismiss the case, arguing to judge Judge Emmet Sullivan that the FBI had no legitimate reason to interrogate Flynn when Director James Comey sent two agents to the White House to discuss his conversations with Kislyak in January 2017.”
One of Cohen’s observations in his book Disloyal about Trump & his early political maneuvers was corroborated by today’s reports of Trump’s taped conversations with Bob Woodward:
Cohen: In those early manifestations of Trump’s aspirations, he revealed an uncanny knack for channeling the fears and resentments of the age . . . .
Just one example was Trump’s call in 1989 for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, a group of black kids convicted of the rape of a white female jogger in Manhattan’s famous park.
The fact that the kids were exonerated years later, when it was proven beyond doubt that they were not guilty, didn’t prompt Trump to back down or admit a mistake; he’d understood instinctively that the racial anxiety and resentments then gripping New York City would provide a potent symbol that he hoped to ride to power.
That was always Trump’s way, learned at the feet of Roy Cohn, his first attack-dog attorney: Never apologize, and never admit to error or weakness. Never. Ever. Not even in the time of Coronavirus, as the world would discover.
Plunging into Michael Cohen’s book, “Disloyal,” I’m more intrigued by the account of his self-seduction than any of his politically-charged disclosures, at least so far. Besides, the really smarmy stuff will be scrapped over & gnawed on by all the big media dogs.
Instead, I was more struck by passages like this:
To an outsider, my attraction to Trump—or as I described it, my “obsession”—seemed to have its roots in money and power and my lust to possess these attributes, if even only by proxy. What other explanation was there for my starstruck, moth-to-the-flame compulsion to insinuate myself with a man so transparently problematic in myriad ways?Continue reading Michael Cohen’s “Disloyal”: A Theological Review→
First, I have to admit that I do 90%-plus of my “reporting” on the 2020 campaign from a broken-down recliner in the living room.
I read several online papers, listen to some news shows, and field an endless stream of political fundraising texts & emails from all over.
Many days I put in several hours at it; one could easily spend every waking moment. (Do nightmares count?)
It isn’t much fun; I’m not by nature a political junkie. It’s more like an ultra-slow motion train wreck that’s hard to look away from; and I’m riding the train.
Yet obscure as my observation post is, maybe it occasionally reveals some clues of its own.
[Note: This is the second part of a Dog Days series on how early civil rights work and later years in the Postal Service came together for me. The first installment is here.]
For a mail handler, the mail stream is much more like a moving body of water. A lot of it came flowing past us, on conveyor belts. I spent many hours leaning over these conveyor belts, heaving bundles, bags and parcels in one direction or another, usually into big canvas hampers marked with zip codes.
This might sound like the sorting I did at Fairfax Station on Route #77 – but here we come to a key bit of postal wonkery and hierarchy: sorting meant throwing individual pieces of mail into address slots arranged in a delivery route or “scheme.” But tossing a bundle from a conveyor into a hamper marked Zip 22039 (Fairfax Station) was distribution or mail “handling”.
Sorting was clerk or carrier work and was paid more, in part because clerks and carriers had to memorize various long and intricate address schemes. Mail handlers didn’t memorize schemes, just recognized the zip codes they were part of.
I was quite content to be part of this lower order. I also soon noticed that many more mail handlers were black, which was also fine by me. It wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that mail handlers were originally a segregated lower level craft.
How did this come about? Who knew?
I did know the post office was older than the republic; which meant it had evolved through a century of slavery, another century-plus of Jim Crow, had been subject to winds of change, and by 1986 was more multiracial than many other American institutions, at least on the surface.
That was enough for the moment. We weren’t grad students studying postal history, anthropology or sociology; we were workers riding the daily six-million piece stream, helping pour it in at one end, and aim it out the other.
Much of the time the conveyor mail stream was hypnotically dull. But often enough, intriguing flotsam and jetsam drifted by. It was variegated enough that I soon felt that, although physically walled off from the outside world, much of the rest of America came coursing past me day by day: the mail stream was part of America’s bloodstream.
For instance, I soon felt as if I had seen every kind of catalog American business put out; and new ones kept popping up. One, that only turned up once, stopped me cold: from Massachusetts, it had a phone number in large bold print on the cover:
I couldn’t resist: turning away, out of sight of any nearby supervisor, I flipped a few pages. The number spoke truth: the company bred and sold rats, mice, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, rabbits and other small animals, and shipped them in large quantities for laboratory use. They were packaged to order, in different colors and sizes, with carefully-guarded pedigrees to assure uniformity for experimentation.
Then there was the CIA, whose headquarters at Langley was only six miles away (almost next door to Langley Hill Friends Meeting, where I was a member). It openly sent bundles of thick bulletin-type documents in clear plastic wrapping.
I covertly eyeballed a few through the wrappers. The Agency then operated its own Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS): somewhere it had linguists trained in as many as 80 foreign languages, reading foreign papers, listening to radios and watching TV. These expert readers produced summaries, which were printed and sent out.
By the way, this is no exposé: none of that stuff was secret. You or I could subscribe to, say, the Lithuanian bulletin, and it would be sent openly, like all the issues that came past me.
One other, of many anomalies: we had what were called U-carts, midsize and wheeled, with canvas baskets for bundles and parcels. On a featureless, not terribly busy day, I was tasked with unloading several, and dumping the contents in other sacks.
In one cart I found thick printed documents, something between phone books and very high-end catalogs. I glanced at one, and then looked again: it was the Alumni Directory of the U.S. Air Force Academy. I thumbed a few pages: it was arranged chronologically by class, with brief sketches about each of the grads.
As with the lab rats catalog, I couldn’t resist. But this called for extra precautions. I trundled the U-cart down the wide aisle between other sorting centers and various machines, looking for a spot that was momentarily deserted. Finding one, I leaned away from the aisle, where supervisors might appear, and opened the book–
— But first, some explanation.
My father was a career Air Force officer, mostly a pilot. He started in World War Two, and retired in the early 1960s. I grew up on and around various Air Force bases, in what expanded into a large Catholic family. Nobody recruited me, but I long assumed that I would follow my father into the Air Force.
In 1955, when I turned 13, the Air Force Academy opened, to much publicity. To me, it was the military equivalent of an Ivy League school, and I resolved to go there.
And I almost did.
Why I didn’t is another story (and it’s in my book, Eating Dr. King’s Dinner.) But I was still on that path enough that I joined Air Force ROTC in college, at Colorado State University. That program would have pinned a lieutenant’s bars on my shoulders, and likely shipped me off to pilot’s school, after graduation with my Class of 1964.
But I didn’t do that either: I didn’t finish ROTC, go to pilot’s school, or graduate in 1964 (I did complete my degree, after a couple very busy and distracting activist years.)
If I had gone to the Academy, I would have finished pilot’s school just in time to be assigned to combat in the Vietnam War. Instead, I ended up an antiwar peacenik, a conscientious objector, and a Quaker.
But that again is another story. Instead here I was, almost 25 years later, suddenly able to look down that road not traveled.
How many of us get a chance to do that?
I quickly paged to the Class of 1964. Of course I didn’t know anybody, but I was interested in their thumbnails anyway: most were retired, and now into second careers; real estate seemed to recur. A few were still in, as generals, near the top of their heap but not quite there. Several others were dead: killed in Vietnam, or in training crashes.
The deaths did not surprise me; the Air Force is a war machine. Nor did the real estate; war machines don’t teach much imagination. What was most impressive was my lack of envy. I didn’t hate ROTC, but had felt no regrets when I quit. And none slipped out of the pages I turned at this other end of the passage.
I did miss one thing, though, not mentioned in the sketches: each of my surviving generational peers was getting a generous monthly pension check, while I stood here, in a tattered mail handler’s apron, grimy work gloves shoved in the pocket while holding the book in genuinely calloused laborer’s hands.
Yes, I envied them those checks; but that was all. I pushed the U-cart back to the conveyor belt, and dropped the book in its proper mailbag.
The retired could do something they wanted to do; I knew what I wanted to do, yet had to punch the clock and pursue it on the side. A job was better than no job; but I often felt hemmed in, and stifled.
Still, that was the Post Office way: in Merrifield it sometimes seemed that all of us in the laboring crafts led double lives. This ambivalence moved a writer in Ebony magazine to note a saying that while such jobs were stable and paid comparatively well, “the post office has often been called ‘the graveyard of Negro talent.’”
Yet another historian argued that “when unionized blue and white-collar employment was becoming a stepping stone to a middle-class lifestyle, autoworkers and meat-packers, nurses and postal workers, displaced the ‘talented tenth’ as agents of Black community advancement.”
And now it’s time for an apology: In Part One I promised to tell about the double life here. Except I ran out of time and space. But fear not: more on my ambivalence and double life in the next part.
The time I spent in the civil rights struggle for Black voting rights in 1965 was a very important part of my life.
And the time I spent working for the Postal Service (USPS), beginning twenty years later in 1985, was important too.
But the two experiences were very different, so different I couldn’t imagine they would ever intersect.
Why should they? One was a social movement, shaking things up, demanding change for justice and facing violent, even murderous opposition. The other was the nation’s oldest public utility, which when working well was a nearly invisible pillar of American normality, stability and placid routine.
But now, in late summer 2020, they’ve abruptly come together; collided, really. Saving our voting rights today, this year, means saving the USPS. Who would have thought?
This is a confluence that’s not easy to sort out. I invite you to come along as I try to process it. I hope doing so can be a small diversion in these Dog Days, but will also encourage you to join the rising movement to defend the postal service, and our voting rights, by whatever sort of ”good trouble” you are able to make.