Wednesday, April 9, 2014



The ideafor a die in bubbled up during last week’s Right of Way meeting. The week before, the state budget had precluded money for the speed cameras the city desperately needs.  Six days later we were outside the home of Sheldon Silver, the man most responsible for the death of the funds, theatrically dying in the street to highlight the human as well as environmental costs of the dearth of leadership in Albany for sensible, people friendly transportation policy. 

For years, Albany has been letting us down around such issues, killing congestion pricing and other progressive transportation policies while the climate iliterally transforming in front of our very eyes. Climate chaos is all around. 

We’d borrow from the old act up graphics and ethos for the campaign.  The message was the same: over and over people are left to suffer within a system which consumes them, neglects them, turns a blind eye to their suffering, that leaves them to tremble or just fade away.  ACT UP understood  direct action helps push an issue forward in ways other approaches rarely do.  The group taught me that there are times need to fight back and challenge those who  favor profits over progress,  politics ahead of people.

We made props on Tuesday night. As we waited for everyone to arriveCharlie gave me a quick history of the group, recalling those days fifteen years ago when he first started collecting and analyzing data on traffic fatalities.  “There was an almost dialectic relationship between the data we were analyzing and the direct action,” explained Komanoff.  The result was the Right of Way book Killed by Automobile: Death in the Streets in New York City 1994-1997 by Charles Komanoff and Members of Right Of Way. He gave me a copy. 

Fifteen years later Right of Way is still at it, with a flood of new volunteers, joining a pulsing movement for safer streets for everyone.  From planning to prop making to research to direct actionRight of Way ipushing to make this city work.  

prop making by keegan

New York, NY: On Wednesday, April 9th, at 6:30PM, Right of Way will stage a demonstration and die-in, and stencil 40 body outlines on Grand Street between Columbia and Lewis Streets on the Lower East Side, for the lives that will be lost this year if Albany does not pass a comprehensive speed camera bill for NYC this legislative session. At the heart of each stencil will be a bloody hand for the blood on the hands of Albany lawmakers, with hashtag #KilledByAlbany, building on the group’s signature slogan “Killed by Automobile.”

Currently, the most expansive speed camera bill in the legislature offers NYC 140 speed cameras in addition to the current 20, with the purported goal of protecting school zones. There are more than 2,500 schools in NYC. “Why should we protect 160 school zones and not the rest?” asks Keegan Stephan, an organizer with Right of Way. “This bill gives Suffolk and Nassau Counties speed cameras for every single one of their school districts, while NYC gets cameras for only a fraction of its schools.”

In addition, the bill under discussion would only allow the cameras to operate during school hours (7 am – 4 pm weekdays).

The result is a free pass for more speeding cars and carbon emissions.  These policies are literally killing cyclists as our climate is damaged beyond repair.  A global city such as ours requires something of leadership which is currently missing from Albany."

"From caving on congestion pricing to cutting monies for speed cameras, Shelly Silver and the Albany gang have failed to show leadership on the environment  or traffic policy," notes Right of Way volunteer Benjamin Shepard. "

“For suburbs, where children are dropped off and picked up from school, restricted hours may have a certain logic,” added Stephan. “But in New York City, children are present on the streets every hour of every day. The streets are our living rooms and public space. If you look at the traffic crashes that killed children over the last year – from Sammy Cohen Eckstein in Park Slope to Allison Liao in Jackson Heights and Cooper Stock on the Upper West Side – all these crashes occurred on evenings and weekends.

“We are tired of waiting until people die before we protest the institutional failures that killed them,” said Liz Patek, another organizer with Right of Way. “We know how many lives inaction will cost, and if Albany does not save them, the blood is on their hands.”

How we know that Albany’s inaction will cost 40 lives: In NYC, 300 people are killed by drivers every year, school zones encompass 2/3 of all NYC streets, and the City’s Vision Zero action plan states that speed cameras reduce crashes by 20%.  300 x 2/3 x 20% = 40.
“Allowing for fewer than 2,500 speed cameras contradicts the internal logic of this bill, handicaps the City’s plan to eliminate traffic fatalities,  and will cost us 40 lives this year alone. We want Albany to be fully aware of that, and to know that we are demanding better,” said Stephan.

Right Of Way uses direct actionforensic statistical analysis and other means to highlight traffic crimes and demand safe streets. Last fall and winter the group created street memorials to children and elders killed by drivers, facilitated ten different neighborhoods to install look-alike 20 mph signs, and painted a bike lane in midtown Manhattan where a British tourist was maimed by a road-raging taxi driver.
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“[T]oday in New York, approximately 4,000 New Yorkers are seriously injured and more than 250 are killed each year in traffic crashes. Being struck by a vehicle is the leading cause of injury-related death for children under 14, and the second leading cause for seniors. On average, vehicles seriously injure or kill a New Yorker every 2 hours.” (NYC Vision Zero Action Plan, p. 7) “No level of fatality on City streets is inevitable or acceptable.” (Ibid., p. 6)

Monday, April 7, 2014

In the realm of the living and the ghosts

Its been ten days since dad died. The first days were not that bad, I explained when people asked. Just wait, everyone warns.  It gets weird.   And its true.  Some call it magical thinking.  My days among the living are spent with the memories and the constant presence of those who are no longer here. Sometimes hours and days are busy and you don’t think of them.  And then reminders, of shoelaces we learned to tie, stories, trips, fights, missed phone calls trip me up.  Here, the dead are as much a part of the living as those who are with us, sometimes more.  The shadows of the room, the stories, the very gestures of the everyday are connected with people and things no longer here.  Quiet moments are times to reflect on those last moments when they were with us in the realm of the living, sitting in a hospital bed, before they shuffled off into some other place in the realm of the ghosts and memories, beyond our comprehension.    

Dad, where he spent way too much time toward the end. 

April 5th, this Saturday marked the tenth anniversary of my friend Keith’s death, who died the week before Ester n 2004.  Cylar and I hung out for a few years before his death, doing activism, drinking, interviewing, and telling stories.   I was asking him questions and he was mentoring me.  We sharing in a practice of friendship.   Some days we rumbled through his files together, pulling out pictures which would be part of supporting an untold story of housing and AIDS activism.  Friday night, I posted one of those photos of Cylar on facebook.

Cylar leading the parade. 
His partner and Housing Works co-founder Charles King posted a comment.  “Keith not only continues to inspire, but he lives on through the lives of all the people and causes he touched. I still miss him. But I am counting on him dancing his wild and crazy dance when we finally end this damned epidemic.

harry weider, keith cylar by Michael Wakefield.

Such a ghost dance opens space for the living and the dead to share common ground.  Many AIDS activists I  know talk about such a space.

The next day, I pulled out my old housing works compassion without action equals death t shirt from the days right after he died on Easter week in 2004.  I’ll never forget walking into work that Monday morning a decade ago and dahlia telling me that Keith was  gone.

I went home and hung out with number one, who was just a year old at the time.

Ten years later, she is eleven and now has a younger sister. Mom out of town, we would spend the weekend making the rounds of the city, navigating the quirky emotional terrain of the city with a dad still reeling.
We went to hang with Stanley Aronowitz for the first of a ten week class on Lukacs and Gramsci.  The room at the Brecht Forum was full of elders cast from Reds at the Brecht.  While elders and mentors such as this are still around, i might as well see them for who knows how much more time they’ll be around.

The girls brought their skateboards and rode up and down the hall during the talks, periodically interrupting to remind me we had a lunch scheduled with mom.

And so I excused myself and we went to meet mom across town at the Morgan Library on Madison.  
Mom had been leading her students through a tour of illuminated manuscripts.  She took us on a mini tour, knowledge teeming out of her, like the others at the Brecht forum.

Finishing our tour, we strolled through the prints of the little prince, whose author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry flew away never to return. 

We talked about Dad a bit and walked up to our favorite bookstore on 42nd and then to Bryant Park where we enjoyed the sun.

 Later that night, we played bluegrass until late, jamming to goodbye anthems, So Long its Been Good to Know You and When the roll is calling from Yonder.

 The prophetic words  of the gospel hymn describe a thin line between this word and another.

When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, and time shall be no more,
And the morning breaks, eternal, bright and fair;
When the saved of earth shall gather over on the other shore,
And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.
When the roll, is called up yon-der,
When the roll, is called up yon-der,
When the roll, is called up yon-der,
When the roll is called up yonder I’ll be there.

And later we jammed to  I’ll fly away:

Some glad morning when this life is o'er, 
I'll fly away; 
To a home on God's celestial shore, 
I'll fly away (I'll fly away). 

I'll fly away, Oh Glory 
I'll fly away; (in the morning) 
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by, 
I'll fly away (I'll fly away). 

When the shadows of this life have gone, 
I'll fly away; 
Like a bird from prison bars has flown, 
I'll fly away (I'll fly away) 


Just a few more weary days and then, 
I'll fly away; 
To a land where joy shall never end, 
I'll fly away (I'll fly away) 

“They are wanting to fly away because it sucks here,” noted one of the banjo players, as we riffed on bluegrass, memories, southern sensibilities, and the songs marking that luminal space between here and elsewhere.

As the evening went on, we played more and more death and breakup songs, Worried Man Blues.

Sunday, the planet was waking up.  We made our way to Judson even thought Sunday school has been more and more about god and religion which worries number two a great deal. But it wasn’t too long before enjoying lunch and a trip out for garden clean up and work days.  The whole city seemed alive with artists, gardeners and everyone else enjoying the sunshine.

The gardens looked majestic.  Cats rolled in the sun, as we played and raked, hung out and cleaned in the realm of the living with the thoughts of the others, of the matt powers,  Michael Shenker, never far behind, walking through the majestic city, through my favorite gardens and streets, looking at what they tell us.

Back home, number two asked if she could listen to the sea from the conch shell I have sitting on my bookshelf.  The image of my Dad and I eating lunch in Galveston Tx and Dad purchasing that silly shell from years ago came to mind.  You never know when those silly memories are going to be some of the last you have with them. The finality of these moments, the sudden period mark on a memory is jarring. Number two and I sat with our ear to the shell, listening to the seagulls from Galveston, the water hitting the beach.
After dinner, the three of us cleaned up, putting out the fermenting food waist compost to decompose in the dirt.

it’s to save the world, explained number two, recognizing the cycles of regeneration around us. 

She was probably right.  Decompose, recompose as something else takes shape, a flower growing in the dirt in these first warm days of spring among the living, the ghosts, and their memories.