Friday, October 02, 2009

The Uses of Adversity

Me, (lower left) and some of my family near Boston Harbor, c. 1936

Jim Kalb may be for a couple of days the most famous, or infamous, mayor in America. Since a few days ago, when the Columbus Dispatch published an account of the dispute between the mayor and me, including the vituperative language the mayor used in response to my public records request, the story has spread from Ohio to the nation via the Huffington Post and now the story has been reported online by the BBC, making it international. I have had 110,000 hits on River Vices in two days. Previously, River Vices got only about 40,000 hits a year, so something about this story has piqued the interest of a lot of people. I’ve got ideas why, but I won’t get analytical here.

I have refrained from writing about myself in the five years or so I have been blogging on
River Vices. I believe community bloggers should focus on the towns and cities where they live, trying to make them better places to live. As a community blogger, I refrained from writing about myself, about my personal life. I didn't twitter. It is my opinions, my convictions, not my personality that I tried to convey on River Vices. But now I am a blip on the 48 hour news cycle. I am in the news as a result of the mayor saying in response to my public records request that I was a “worthless piece of shit" and that he wouldn’t "piss on me" if I were on fire. A certain delicacy, a certain innate Appalachian refinement, led the mayor to use asterisks with p**s and sh*t. He went on to say “you’re no more than the pitiful, broke-down, lizard-looking thing . . .” I can’t get too upset with the mayor over that because there are days I feel like a broke-down lizard, so it wouldn’t surprise me if there were days I looked like one.

Anyway, what I am going to do is provide, on the occasion of my 48-hour celebrity, a little more bio than I provide in the side bar of my blog. I’m also going to use some photos for illustration.

Shakespeare's Birthday

I was born in East Boston, Massachusetts, in 1933, on April 23, Shakespeare’s birthday. I didn’t know April 23 was my birthday until the sixth grade because we had a simple math problem in class that required knowing your correct birthday and I was off by a day. I thought my birthday was April 24. My family was so large and my father was such a heavy drinker that there were times he wasn’t sure what our names were and he certainly didn’t remember our birthdays, but he had a great sense of humor. He knew who we were of course, even when he was drinking. It was just remembering our names he had trouble with when he was drinking. Which he never did before noon, he said proudly all his life, even if some days he kept an eye on the clock from 11:30 AM to noon. My father bootlegged during Prohibition and served a term in jail. My uncle, “KO Mugsy Forrey” was a celebrated featherweight boxer in Boston in the 1920s.

"K.O Mugsy" Forrey on left, my father on right

I was the eighth of fourteen children. I was the first boy in the family to go on to college, which I did on a football scholarship, but I only played for two years, when I was injured and my interests changed from athletics to books. I discovered that I could be a much better student than athlete. I had to study very hard to make up for all the things I hadn’t learned in public school, where I was considered and indeed I acted like a dumb kid from a blue-collar family.

One of the two most important influences on me were my Irish immigrant grandfather, who had a lifelong quarrel with the Catholic Church and with priests in particular. My Irish grandmother was the most pious woman I ever knew and how she and my grandfather ever hooked up I have no idea.

My Irish grandparents, c. 1900

My oldest brother (upper left in the Boston Harbor photo above), a merchant sailor, became radicalized by the Great Depression and went into the Deep South in the late 1940s, a blond northerner, as a labor organizer of blacks. I don’t know how he got out alive.

I graduated from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and got a Ph.D. from Yale in American Studies, in 1971. I took a few years off from graduate school in the early 60s to go to New York, where I was involved in radical anti-Vietnam War politics. When I went back to Yale, I wrote my dissertation, "The Flesh and the Spirit," on the Indiana writer Theodore Dreiser. My thesis was that, in spite of his hard-boiled naturalistic exterior,
Dreiser was, though he did his best to hide it, a compassionate and religious person, a trait that he inherited not from his stern Catholic father but from his loving Mennonite mother. I placed Dreiser in “the prophetic tradition. "Dreiser and the Prophetic Tradition," was published in 1974 in the journal American Studies. For a link, click here. I aspire to be in that tradition as well, even though I am as opposed to organized religion as much as my grandfather was to Catholicism. But I admire the Old Testament prophets, who felt a deep obligation to stick up for the poor and the underdogs. I also admire their courage in speaking out against the abuse of authority. If I wasn’t going to be cremated, I would have on my tombstone a variation of a line from the poet E. E. Cummings: “There was some shit he would not eat.”

There is so much shit in Portsmouth you wouldn’t believe. My son, whom I’m enormously proud of, has a Ph.D. in Polymer Science and Engineering and is doing research on the genome structure of the DNA and RNA of viruses. He asked me about a year ago, “Dad, now that you’re retired, why don’t you move back to Boston?” I found myself answering, “Portsmouth is like a prison, but I’m deeply bonded with the inmates.” Mayor Kalb is just a figurehead, a lapdog, in that prison, but he is not the worst, unfortunately. Portsmouth has many good points but it has some very bad ones as well. Portsmouth has a reputation as Ohio’s prostitute and drug capital. Check out this You Tube Video by black rappers on Portsmouth. The most notorious drug-dealing pimp in Portsmouth, who is white, was appointed by Kalb & Company to the City Council.
Things like that infuriate me.

The Meetinghouse at Rumney Marsh

I would not like to spend the rest of my life writing River Vices in Portsmouth. What I want most to do with whatever time I have left is finish a book on a three-hundred-year-old church building (shown at left) near Boston that I have over the last twenty-five years tried to make myself an authority on. The building has changed much, but its great oak frame has survived all the changes.

Instead of being a scholar, I am writing a blog about the vices of Portsmouth. If Kalb is defeated next November 3rd (he lost the primary by a 2.5 to 1 margin to a woman), I like to think I will hug all the inmates, wipe away a tear, and take my leave of Portsmouth and the likes of him forever. I've paid my dues. I taught some aspiring Appalachians some grammar and a little Shakespeare. I've done my penance. Penance is the only thing about Catholicism I still believe in.

And, just think, I wouldn’t be writing about myself and River Vices wouldn't have over 100,000 hits in two days if that brainless clown of a mayor,
in response to my open records request, hadn’t called me a broke-down piece of shit he wouldn't piss on. In emailing me at 1:47 AM, he, and I, got the attention of the world, or at least the blogosphere, for 48 hours. Sweet are the uses of adversity.