Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Louis Reyes Rivera on the A Train To Harlem

At 42nd Street, this family of French hipsters boarded the uptown A train.  The daughter, who couldn't have been more than 16, pulled out a stuffed purple bear from a paper bag and nuzzled its face, leaning up against the door, not seeing or caring that anyone was watching.  Her sisters made fun of her in French.  Her mother and father smiled knowingly.  Then she pounced on the first open seat she could find once the train emptied at 59th Street.  I thought to myself, this could be her first trip to Harlem, or her fortieth. 

Baby girl is definitely dressed the part:  smart ankle-length boots, black cashmere waistcoat, pink scarf, black fedora with a stylish black flower, velvety, adorned with a silver butterfly in the center.  And her dad seemed to be straight out of a French jazz club:  leather waist-length jacket, dark blue jeans, perfectly shined black square toes.  Bald head.  World-weary.  The sisters and the mother could have been in a Bennetton ad.  There was a lot of hair among the three of them.

Why did I think "hipster" when I saw them?  Well, the image of the hipster started with white kids in the 1940's; who wore pork pie hats and snapped fingers along with Charlie Parker and Lester Young; the white kids who wanted to follow and emulate the black musicians they idolized.  Jack Kerouac knew hipsters.  Allen Ginsberg called them angel-headed.  Nowadays, I move out of their way when they bar hop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or Fishtown, Philadelphia.  I hate hipsters because none of them know Bird anymore, and they generally mean gentrification, but then I say to myself, what makes you any better?  You can't afford to live here, but you would if you could. 

The French family leaves the train at 125th Street, and I imagine what they encounter on their walk east:  The Studio Museum.  Starbucks.  Manna's.  The Apollo Theater.  The Adam Clayton Powell Building.  Jimmy Jazz.  The Golden Krust.  Starbucks.  H&M.  I wonder if they're on their way home.  I wonder if their on their way to LaGuardia Airport, and a ride home to some flat in Paris.  I wonder if they know what a hipster is.

When someone said that Louis Reyes Rivera had passed away in his sleep, I was annoyed at first, because the news cycle kills celebrities prematurely every day.  I hate rumors.  But then I think, Louis was not a celebrity in that way, so why would anyone make that up?  I shoot an email to Shaggy Flores, certain he would know for sure, since he is Louis' mentee, and he named an award after the man.  It was the first Shaggy had heard of it.  Suddenly, I'm the one spreading rumors.  But Shaggy calls Louis' wife, Barbara, and it is not rumor anymore.  Louis is gone.  And Shemal Books is gone.  And "Cu-Bop," and "Bullet Cry," and Jazz in Jail.  Gone.  Then I think of Tony Medina, his co-editor on Bum Rush the Page.  I think of August 2003, at the Acentos reading, where I first met Louis, and where Louis held court and signed books for impromptu students in a cipher on 139th Street in Mott Haven.  I think of November 2011, me freshly divorced, when he said:  "Hey.  It happens, brother.  You still doing that workshop in the Bronx?" 

And suddenly, there is a void.  And I log on to Facebook, where everyone is standing on the corner, so to speak, simultaneously posting clips of Louis from YouTube.  This is how we find things out in the internet age.  This is how we are shocked, how we wail, how we begin to mourn.  We are simultaneously lucky and unlucky.  Louis belonged to us, to the poets who looked up to him, even to the scholars who feared him, and definitely to the history of New York.  And he belonged, as he/we would say, to the Independent People's Republic of Brooklyn.  Believe that.

My phone died on the train from Jersey.  Just as well, I suppose.  I spend 45 minutes thinking about Louis and his legacy, wondering what needs to be done, what needs to be written, what needs to be defined and catalogued.  Documentation is a behavior I learned from him.  Archive is a survival instinct he tried to teach us all,

so of course the word hipster climbs into my brain in the context of some jolly Europeans on an A train to Harlem.  I know history, and I know etymology, not because I find it a cute hobby, or something to do on my lunch break, but because Louis Reyes Rivera at one time nurtured in me a curiosity for the human condition that I seek to satisfy daily, in and out of books.  In film.  In poetry.  In visual art.  And not just curiosity, but social justice:  that concept that not a lot of folk from the dominant culture are very keen on.  So I find myself on an uptown A train, thinking of Louis, thinking of gentrification and 125th Street, and preparing myself to view Precious Knowledge, a documentary film on the end of ethnic studies in Tucson, Arizona. 

At the gallery space, an independent gallery space called Azucarera, we are simultaneously surprised and unsurprised at the rank racism on display from the right wing power brokers in the state of Arizona.  At the beginning of the night, a conch shell is passed by a former teacher in the Tucson Unified School District, and we are asked to remember an ancestor.  I am, for the first time, choked up as I invoke Louis' name, and I did so because Louis knew that the poet is an cultural worker, that the two need not be mutually exclusive.  Because he was knee-deep in the fight for Ethnic Studies at CUNY in the 1960's.  Because so was his friend, the poet Sekou Sundiata, and because Louis and Tony Medina published Sekou, along with dozens of my peers, in a volume called Bum Rush the Page.  Because these are the poets I am still in awe of.  The teacher blows the conch shell, in an independent gallery space in the middle of Harlem, and I am aware that this is what Louis gave his life to:  the idea that we need not ask for permission to honor, and teach, and fight. 

Louis Reyes Rivera will always be the gold standard.  The day I grew the cojones to disagree with him is the day I felt ready to assert my identity as a poet, with all the responsibility that word entails.  I am confident in his legacy, and I am confident it will be set down to paper, because he did so, and he taught us well, and he taught us to remember, never to forget.  And because he said the title Jazz in Jail so many times, because Tony Medina is a scholar to all-be-damned, and because there is a generation of us who knew Louis was our own personal Afro-Latino Yoda, I know the man is still alive, and chillin' on the A train to Nostrand, a cane in one hand and Scattered Scripture in the other.

I am writing this piece in Nyack, New York, right around the corner from Edward Hopper's house and Nyack Beach.  The moon is out over the Hudson, there is a jazz soundtrack in the cafe, and there are million-dollar homes five minutes from two independent bookstores and a fine chocolatier.  The place is as idyllic, meditative, and sleepy as Nighthawks, the iconic diner painting that was Hopper's magnum opus. 

There are two white men to my right discussing the American preoccupation with the horror genre in literature and film.  One of them is waxing philosophical, and slightly long-winded, on how the moment we came to our disastrous consciousness in the racial politics and war footing of the 1850's and beyond, we filled our artistic psyches with The Cask of Amontillado, the stories and theories of dark continents and darker people, yellow journalism, zombies, Jim Crow, and Birth of a Nation.  I am fascinated by this discussion, and I join in, mentioning how Mat Johnson investigated Edgar Allen Poe, and this particularly American anxiety of otherness and literature, in his novel Pym.  And I mention Louis Reyes Rivera, who always said that racism was a sickness, one that went back to the first Spanish sailors in Puerto Rico to hear the word "Taino," which was not a name, but a warning.  Back to the first Spanish soldier who set incredulous eyes on Tecnochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, a civilization so advanced, they could barely describe it. 

The verbose one, a white man, a local artist and scholar who may have been any nationality on the planet, begins to reminisce on the time he met Louis at WBAI; and
he deconstructs for me, the angry Puerto Rican poet, the myth of the American dream; and how white people were those allegorical Platonic cave dwellers who stole history from Africa, and the Americas, in a fit of rage and jealousy; and how this is the history of Western Civilization, the very same one that Arizona now seeks to strip from the children of Tucson, all children. 

This is too good to be true, and I decide this is going to be the end of the essay.  Until his companion, who to this point had been quietly writing down names and web links, responds to an offhand comment I'd made about white picket fences:

"Put this in your essay.   The white picket fence is where we have impaled ourselves."

Louis Reyes Rivera.  Presente.


Lauro said...

thank you rich for this great essay

New Haiku said...

Very present in this piece. On the train, at the table with you, seeing the moon over the Hudson.