Plain in the city

A plain Quaker folk singer with a Juris Doctorate in his back pocket, salt in his blood, and a set of currach oars in the closet, Ulleann Pipes under his arm, guitar on his back, Anglo Irish baggage, wandering through New York City ... in constant amaze. Statement of Faithfulness. As a member of the Quaker Bloggers Ad Hoc Committee I affirm that I will be faithful to the Book of Discipline of my Meeting 15th Street Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Carl - A scow sailor adrift inTomkins Square Park


Tompkins Square Park: Lower East Side, New York. Today, as often happens, Lt. Corcoran told a drinker to get out of the park. And, Carl, ever the gentleman, complied with humor and a genteel wit.

Carl is given a ticket and told to leave the park
Carl is given a ticket and told to leave the park
He watches the echange knowing the outcome
A friend of Carl watches the exchange, knowing the outcome

Who is Carl? Carl was born in a different world, the New York of 1946 - the last days of the waterfront of Anna Christie, the world of bargies and a community who lived in sight of the city but a world away.As Carl tells it, his mother had a hard menopause, and in order to survive, his father retreated to a job on a Trap Rock Scow, a barge towed from up the Hudson River to an anchorage off Staten Island. Carl was then the sole recipient of his mother's temper, so in an act of kindness his father took him, just before puberty, to live in the aft cabin of a scow, a community of a few thousand deck hands living in a floating village anchored off the narrows. One can still see barges moored at Robin's reef, in the lee of Kitty's light, just before the ferryboat reaches Staten Island.

"My father took some two by fours and made a bunk for me, above his. I had a porthole, it was a beautiful view. I became quite a seaman, I might not have been able to splice a hawser, but I was a good sailor." He and his father, worked as did as the other deck hands of the scows, breaking ice off the lines and bending stiff lines, salting the decks, and sweating in the summers. "I lived the life before the mast, so to speak... we had no mast."

He suffered through puberty, gazing at the city from the island of scows which bumped against each other at the anchorage, separated by truck tire fenders. On occasion he and his father went ashore in a rubber dingy. In the winter they had a Franklin coal stove, but often it gave too much heat, so they cooked over two hand pumped gas primus stoves. "The company even gave us an ice box, but it was no good to us, they did not give us ice!" Rain, fog, sleet and storm, fair weather or foul, they worked the scow, living on the end of a tug boat's tow line, or anchored in the upper river or lower harbor around the stake boat, permanently chained to the anchorage -- the center of the scow sailor's community.

Poor old horse
An 1890s tug - a ghost of Carl's childhood.

Then one day, that world died. The tug boat companies tore the cabins off the scows and had their own crews take over.

Barge Grave yard

Up the river for ever

tug and tow
The new world slips down river.

A world ended, and tug boat men had to board scows in rough weather, sometimes paying for the new deal with their lives. And so, the 1950s turned into the 1960s, and there was no place for the scow sailors of New York.

It is hard not to smile around Carl
Officer Torres tries to keep supress a smile around Carl

Officer Torres gives in to Carls humor
The officer gives in to Carl's humor

Tonight, this gentleman, who still dreams of life with his father in the cozy cabin of the Trap Rock Scow, sat in the park confronted by the police car. Lt. Corcran commented on his long hair. "Yes, you are right, I do need a hair cut. Thank you for the concern... I will get a hair cut... Yes, I will not lie to you, I AM drunk. I hope you only give me a ticket, as I don't have my ID with me today. I have to leave the park as well? Well, I suppose I do if I need to get a hair cut... So, I will leave ... and rape a barber." This brought laughter to the two officers out side the car, I could not see Lt. Corcoran response ... and Carl rose and walked slowly out of the park. Few in our neighborhood know where his journey started.

And Carl leaves the park
And Carl leaves the park again

All photos Lorcan Otway - all rights reserved

Monday, August 20, 2007

Update on Flight Insurence

Ryan Molly and Me
Ryan and Molly's wedding was great!
Almost home
... and I made it back alive.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Flight insurance

I am away on a plane in a few hours. A street "prophet" told me last month that I was going to die in a car crash, burn up, and go to hell. So ... well, I always felt publishing these things is a funny sort of insurance. But, just think of the urban legion if anything happens. And one, dear friend ... know that between St. Anthony and this public sort of flight insurance ... all will be well, for thee as well as for me. Glue =)

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Karl Marx, Carl the Communist, Quakers, Convergence, Class and Care - (looking for the great leap forward)

Oh, where to begin ... maybe on a bench, next an old friend, Carl - a Trotskyist by his self description. It rained terribly this morning, and there were tornadoes in New York City, Brooklyn to be exact. We are breathing a hot wet soup which passes for air today.

Carl speaks out


"Well, come the emergence of the Socialist State here," says Carl. "We face the great dilemma of how to deal with the Amish and you Quakers. I suppose we need to offer some plan to encourage some kind of gentle assimilation into the twenty-first century? " Well, I complement him on the depth of his religious faith, wonder at how anyone might claim ownership of a century, and begin again, to try and find words to describe the folly of the single system, conservative message, the next big thing, the great awakening, the catholic church (small c ), orthodoxy, the all powerful, lock step, great and powerful Oz, while we both sit waiting for the great leap forward. And, who wants to be dealt with anyway?
When did it all begin? When we picked up rocks to smash bones of discarded lion kill, in our scavenger - pre flint knapping days, did some early hominid with ADHD find a better way to splinter bone, and some Alpha male make a law that it must be done this way, or suffer a crack on the head? Perhaps.

But, for as long as we have stories, we have been looking for that single answer, and each young zealous generation believes they have it in the new and improved and ever so simple single edged theory of...

And as the old folks said to Bernadette Devlin, before she was McAlisky, as she tells it... "Keep marching for your rights and there will be war." "Oh no old woman, oh no old man, it is a new time, a new world and we just have to show the error of their ways to those who oppress us and... " and soon it was war. Each generation believes in the new answer, even if the new answer is to embrace (converge on) an old system.

I'm glad to see, Liz Opp and Robin both speak of convergence in terms of fuzzy. Good start. But why speak of convergence at all? Was it Emerson who said, "The louder we say us, the louder we say them?" And yet, it is true, we need to draw some boundaries on any abstraction, and this abstraction of Quakerism is like oil on the water sometimes, or is it?

It seems less difficult to draw boundaries on something called a Society of Friends, than something called Quakers. As a society of friends, we seek unity, even definition in unity. Unity is a remarkable thing ... it presumes best intentions. I am sometimes disappointed that some Friends who are rather zealous about defining the boundaries of the abstraction of Quakerism, at times so strongly that they must say it twice, are not overly interested in granting others their best intentions. Friends who neglect to assume the best intentions of others, fortress their cliques, show little faith in those practices which bring us together as a diverse group, processes of clearness, of openness at business meetings ... respect for each other, and at the root is the notion that for me to be right, thee must be wrong ... the single answer to the world's many problems ... my way or the highway.

A few of us, in my Meeting, speak of how to get our meeting to go from a reactive state, where we can't even accomplish the simplest tasks together, to a proactive state where we pull together as a team, a society of friends. In an urban Meeting, in one of the most diverse cities on earth, we are faced with having to find that model of unity in the face of Babel. One friend suggests that the answer is found in acceptance that Jesus is God. My response that I will acknowledge Jesus as God, when the Friend acknowledges God is Jewish, a sort of Zen-light response is less than helpful (thee is welcome to turn the pun Zen-light anyway thee may - I do).

Part of the answer is a trusting silence, but what happens when we must speak as we seek? The question of who owns the 21st century is very like who owns our identity as Quakers. I believe we all own both, it takes nothing from me, to give thy place to thee. The more we empty the cup of our ego and invite God to fill it, the more we are the children of light. Some Friends will say to me, and have, but if we worship different Gods, what then? I suppose my response is to say, my God and thy God are God, thy name for God, and my name for God is ego, and a God who can't laugh at our attempts to sculpt the eternal and infinite into the image of our own ego, well ... just should not have invented irony.

Now, some Friends have, as we have in the past, asked that we examine class, as one of the many divides which creates diversity in our Meetings, and might well create division. Yes, there are class differences which like theology does divide us when we draw it around us as an armor -- working class and owning class alike. It becomes walls to fortress our schools, our social conscience and our testimonies from simplicity to peace. I admit a twinge of pride in great moments of class awareness, such as in the film Matwan, when the IWW organizer says, "There are two kinds of people in the world, those who work, those who don't ... we work, they don't!" But, how true is that. If we are not aware of the identity of our class and work for our class interests, who will? If we work only for the interest of our class, who are we? We can deny an ownership class their right to one thing or another, we can dig in until the great leap forward ... divide and fail ... or we can transcend, not our awareness of, but the walls of our identity. I think that is what it is to be Quaker ... to strive with the late Friend Harry Helmsley and the late Friend Barrington Dunbar to be a society of friends undivided by racialism, class, theology...

Where does this leave us -- the all inclusive us? My friend in Dingle, Co. Kerry, Ireland, Maz, just had her birthday a few days ago. I should give her a call. When my wife and I would pick at each other, in the first days of our long decades together, Maz would simply say, "be good to each other." Maz, thee has summed it all up.
Be good to each other.

Thursday, August 09, 2007


How long can we ignore our infrastructure while blowing up other folks ... another example of Dr. King's reflection about bombs dropped on Vietnam landing on American slums, or in this case, midtown.

Boiling up some steam for 14th Street
pumping steam into an ancient system ... while spending billions on war.

experience NYC note the rocks being tossed into the air (and the Madmen sign)
all photos Lorcan Otway all rights reserved