don’t wanna go down in the tube station at midnight

Elizabeth B., a friend of mine from high school, visited Boston to look at grad schools this past weekend. I showed her the best the city had to offer:


  • 90s Night at Common Ground
  • Tour of the college campuses she was applying to
  • The Cellar near Harvard Square
  • The mainstage show at ImprovBoston
She picked a good weekend to get out of Baltimore, as a sudden snowstorm blanketed the city. So she enjoyed Boston’s balmy 30-degree temperatures and wide, windswept streets.

I like showing Boston off to tourists, especially those from Baltimore. It reminds me of how awesome a city I live in. When my younger brother came to visit two years ago to see a Celtics game, he literally stared with a slack jaw at the Boston skyline. “I’m not used to seeing buildings this big,” he confessed.

My first night at Boston College – over a decade in the past, now – I walked to the Green Line terminus just outside the main campus. The pink glow of light pollution told me which way the city was: due east of my current position. I was young, healthy and unchaperoned for the first time in my life. I started walking, with some ill-formed notion that I might walk to downtown Boston and just soak up the fluorescence. I didn’t make the walk that night – young and poetical, I had no conception of what seven miles actually looked like – but I’ve since traveled every part of that route.

Last Thursday I bought lunch at a corner deli in the South End. I can see it from the window of my office, twenty stories above the Back Bay, but it’s still a fifteen minute walk to get there. The route cuts past the gleaming metal and marble offices of Copley, past the First Bank of Boston (established 1784), over the Massachusetts Turnpike, and into dense red brick rowhomes. I’ve lived in this city for a decade and the South End could be in a whole different state, for all that I know of it.

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the memories will linger on; the good old days, they’re long gone

I still sit in dumb amazement, sometimes, at the power music has over me.

Standing in Johnny D’s on Saturday, watching the Ravens lose, Bobby pointed out a particular Beatles song that Beatlejuice was covering. It reminded him of the old shareware game Scorched Earth, which he used to play for hours with a friend while listening to Beatles albums. I saw his reminiscence and raised: one of the first CDs my parents got, when they upgraded to a CD player and a full stereo, was Revolver. I remember listening to it while playing my dad at Conquest of the Empire.

“It’s odd, the associations we make,” Bobby observed.

After the Ravens finished failing, I stumbled home. A sudden wave of nostalgia for Baltimore and childhood overtook me, and I turned to the surest remedy: The Band’s self-titled 1970 album.

As a scientist, I have to discount the effect that nostalgia may have on me. I remember listening to Levon Helm’s crooning on summer road trips with the family: Baltimore, MD to Cape Hatteras, NC in eight hours or less. I’ve always had a facility for lyrics and rhythm: it only took a few times for the songs to be ingrained on my consciousness.

And yet Martin Scorsese agrees with me: there was something about The Band that made them uniquely talented. They displayed the same penchant for odd but touching harmonies that the Beach Boys had. Combine that with the folksy strains that resonate with half of the American continent and you have a factory for classics. Rolling Stone, always a tough audience, was amazed that “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” wasn’t a century-old spiritual. It wasn’t. It was written by a Canadian. That’s how fucking good The Band was.

Blend once-in-a-generation talent with the lure of nostalgia, and you get a powerful brew. I would learn to play the guitar just to cover half of these songs, and I could never do it as well as Robertson. As it stands, I could never see myself turning to drugs so long as music like this exists in the world.

superstar, but he didn’t get far

I’m visiting family in Baltimore, taking the train down this morning and back on Monday, so don’t expect much.

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I said whoa no, william and mary won’t do

Two things on writing:

First – Grub Street’s annual networking conference with agents and editors, The Muse and the Marketplace, falls the same weekend as my 10th high school reunion. I love you, Dons1, really I do, but I haven’t spoken to most of you in ten years. So … yeah. Good thing I didn’t buy those train tickets yet.

Second – Grub Street also offers manuscript consultations a few times a year. You pick someone to read 25 pages of stuff, choosing from a list of teachers, editors and published authors, and then meet with them on a Saturday to get feedback.

I e-mailed the first 25 pages of the novel I finished last year to Kate Flora. This past Saturday, we met for half an hour to talk about it.

I talk about her feedback in detail in this locked entry, whose password is the name of the town in which the story takes place2. Anyone who’s read the manuscript is welcome to take a look.

____________
1 My high school mascot is a Spanish nobleman.

2 All lower case, two “t”s.

my hometown

Thanksgiving weekend, comparing and contrasting my experiences in Baltimore (where I grew up) and Boston (where I live):

The TSA

  • Boston: Though I’d already put my jacket on the X-ray conveyor belt, the security goon asked me to strip out of my Ravens hoodie as well. Another goon rifled through my toiletries kit before putting it back on the X-ray for another scan.
  • Baltimore: Though I’d already put my shoes on the X-ray conveyor belt, the security goon asked me to remove my belt as well. Hoodie stayed on. Toiletries made it through unscathed.

Marriage

  • Baltimore: I’m officiating a wedding in rural Pennsylvania this June, at an outdoor amphitheater near Swarthmore College. “So what do you have planned for this all natural, non-denominational commitment ceremony?” the groom’s older brother joked. “Because I’m definitely picturing Lord of the Rings. I want elf ears and crossbows out the wazoo.”
  • Boston: That Sunday, I recounted the story to Melissa and Fraley, whose wedding I’ll be officiating three weeks earlier. “That sounds cool,” Mel said. “… wait, they were joking?”

Drinking, Dancing and Carrying On

  • Baltimore: I caught up with Liz, whom I hadn’t seen in about nine years, on Friday night. We carpooled over to her friend Keith’s rowhome in Highlandtown. After pregaming for a bit, we squeezed into Keith’s car and hit up The Depot, a narrow little lounge on Charles Street. We had several rounds of cheap beer and a Jaeger shot that felt like a punch in the stomach, then spent most of the evening dancing to 80s pop on the industrial black floor.
  • Boston: Highlandtown reminds me a lot of Medford, or East Somerville just off of Pearl Street. And The Depot reminded me a lot of Toast in Union Square. In fact, I’ll bet when Depot has their goth nights it looks exactly like Toast.

    At one point, Keith got up to stare curiously at an all-black painting hanging near the men’s room. It turned out that the painting actually had several plastic roaches set just into its surface. Also, the artist was sitting right next to it, waiting for someone to notice so he could trap them in conversation. Keith shot us several plaintive looks. Tell me that couldn’t happen at the Middle East on Mass Ave.

if the hate doesn’t make you want to die, try harder

I’m reprinting this op-ed from my birthplace’s paper of record on why the War on Drugs is destroying this country without further comment:

Imagine you’re Cheye Calvo, the white mayor of Berwyn Heights, an affluent part of Prince George’s County. Coming home one night in late July, you find on your front porch a large package that, unbeknownst to you, happens to contain a lot of marijuana. As it turns out, your spouse is the victim of a drug-smuggling scheme that targets innocent customers in the UPS system. You bring the box inside; moments later, the SWAT officers standing by break in and shoot your two beautiful Labradors. As the dogs lie there bleeding to death, you’re held in the same room, handcuffed for hours. Nearly a month later, you have yet to receive an apology.

Because of who he is, the nation knows what happened to Mr. Calvo a few weeks ago. Here’s what most Americans don’t know: There are perhaps 40,000 such raids each year, according to a Cato Institute report, “Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America.”

Now try to imagine that instead of a middle-class white man in the Maryland suburbs, you’re a young Latino boy in Modesto, Calif. Shortly before dawn, in early September 2000, a SWAT team forces its way into your house. Thirty seconds later, although you comply with police orders to lie face down on the floor, you are dead from a shotgun blast to the back. The officer responsible is later cleared of wrongdoing in what is concluded an accidental shooting – though it was not the first time his weapon had “accidentally” discharged during a raid. Alberto Sepulveda had just begun the seventh grade.

Or say you’re 57 and getting ready for work in May 2003. A battering ram breaks down your door shortly after 6 a.m., and a flash grenade is tossed inside. You’re coughing, you can’t breathe, while the police search for a stash of drugs and guns they’ll never find because it isn’t there. Alberta Spruill, a church volunteer and city worker in Harlem, died of a heart attack on the way to the hospital.

Or you’re a fierce 92-year-old Atlanta woman, frightened by the sounds of someone prying off the burglar bars that cover your door but determined to protect your home. The door is broken down; you fire one shot at the intruders before being shot at 39 times, handcuffed and left to die while the police (who have broken down the wrong door) realize their mistake and plant drugs in your basement. Two of the cops responsible for Kathryn Johnston‘s death pleaded guilty to manslaughter last year; a third was recently convicted of lying in the cover-up.

Many lives are lost, and many more are ruined, by these paramilitary operations in the ever-widening circles of survivors and families of those killed. You’re in extra danger if you happen to be poor or a person of color.

No-knock warrants may be justified in unusual circumstances. But unreasonable, routine no-knock raids must be stopped. Police should do their homework beforehand, show restraint and use the minimum amount of force necessary in a situation. They must take extraordinary care not to enter the wrong house when conducting a raid. Most important, they need to be held accountable to the communities they serve.

The fact is, raids like the one on Mayor Calvo’s home violate every precept of American liberty that is held up as integral to our “free” society. We can no longer allow our supposedly democratic government to terrorize communities across the country with the very tactics that are publicly decried when used by defense contractors and our own military in Iraq.

Unfortunately, racism in political structures and security forces still dictates who matters and who doesn’t – and for the most part, violence against those who don’t is tolerated. Because the vast majority of these raids are against poor people of color, we hear very little about them.

That’s what makes the Berwyn Heights case so potentially important: It is opening a window into the realities lived every day by innocent victims and survivors of the ineffective and destructive “war on drugs.” Let’s remember this case, keep this window open, and use it to address the misguided (at best), unjust and indisputably failed drug war policies that are destroying the fabric of our society.