Connections

I came to the East End in stages, with family in summers that were almost exclusively centered around children. The first trips out were exciting, with the endless beaches and an actual and incredible polo tournament. Shops in Southampton that looked and felt like stepping into a priceless Rockwell water color of an Emerald City in summer. When not on the East End, I’m usually in an ultra diverse, very artsy, and often troubled Chicago community called Rogers Park, aka The RP. In a city that has led the nation in homicides, bedbugs, gas prices and especially corruption, The RP is often a cauldron of competing forces fighting for shrinking resources. For years at my niece and nephew’s other home on the Upper East Side of New York City, I was the safe and very different adult from their urban professional parents. The uncle who taught them how to use a power drill, drove faster than Mom and Dad, and turned up the radio instead of turning it down. One rainy day we built a catapult together at the house in Watermill, and on another I showed them pictures from a protest I was in trying to save a mental health center back in The RP. I walk with them to school, no matter how late I’m out the night before. The contrasts between these places are for me are much of the experience. Sometimes they are incredible, at others quite disturbing. A couple weeks back in The RP another young man was killed, at four o’clock on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Gunned down, blood grotesquely pooled on the pavement, vile little flies hovering in the heat. Police produced assault weapons before finding a sheet to shield children’s eyes from the violence just feet from their park field house door. I recollect a day at Bridgehampton Polo Club, watching the sport of kings play out a few meters away in all its thundering intensity. I think of that body, of those hideous rifles. I shut my eyes and shake my head, trying to sort the images. They don’t go together. I remember walking onto the field at halftime, and about the mom and four kids some friends finally found lodging for after she fled yet another domestic beating. They had spent months crammed into a cousin’s apartment, hiding from the landlord to make their way to school each morning. I am certain that the youngest, Chris would be the most energetic divot stomper ever. Both Rogers Park and the East End are bordered by beaches. Both have a lighthouse. Each has a major road running through it that everyone agrees is inadequate but no one wants to see widened. Railroads run through both communities. Beyond that they really don’t go together, yet for me they do. They have now for years. It is a chaotic, unsettled collision, a sense that one might get while standing high in the crows nest of an old sailing ship on a starry night, knowing that things are playing out very differently inside the ship below. I wonder about how to build durable connections. Perhaps a polo match in Willye White park near where the body lay. Or maybe an event at the Parrish featuring art by young people of color struggling against an underfunded and segregated school system that is rife with spirit sapping indifference… There are, of course vast sums of money contributed on the East End to charities each year- generosity that changes lives, to be sure. The degree of connection between human beings, however persists in stubbornly unyielding ways. I read about Nile Rodgers and the “All for the East End” effort. I feel hopeful that AFTEE helps prevent the poverty that often hammers The RP from slashing into the East End. Overcoming the barriers to more organic connections, however is trickier. Its not so much a failing of generosity as an enforced separation of cultures. Too often, we wall off more than we share. Those elusive connections seem to matter at least as much as financial resources. Obviously there are poor folks on the the East End, and wealthy people in The RP. Prejudice on all sides, too. And everyone knows that just having some acquaintances on the other side of an economic line changes nothing. The shelves at Citarella are lined with foods quite similar to Morse Market in The RP. Prices and brands are somewhat different, but the real divergence is outside. No police car sits perpetually across the street, and young men of color are not regularly forced to place their hands upon it to be searched in front of the whole community. Such encounters in Rogers Park frequently include the cops quietly telling the men to go to a less diverse part of the city. The racial diversity at the beaches in The RP make me feel that no matter how many people are present at Southampton Beach, half the neighborhood must be missing. The trees thin out as the sand begins, scrubby, tenacious little things that look just like the ones near The RP beaches. One tree in particular reminds me of the one where on a cold December night we hung the 500th little wooden star in memory of that day’s fatal Chicago shooting, in a rain that seemed to weep upon the names and for the lives our streets had destroyed. Its strange. Instead of first seeing differences, its the similarities that are initially most apparent and then make the differences feel impossible to ignore. It can be tempting to judge the wealthy, and at times that judgment is appropriate. That feels less so on the East End in summer, however. Mostly because one gets the sense that doing so misses the greater point. Dismissing the East End as a mere playground for the privileged or The RP as just a ghetto, as some so readily do ducks the deeper challenges in a perniciously blithe and craven manner. There are in reality two great peoples, moving if you will in one vast waterway, some scouring the bottom and others shining in the sun, and most somewhere in between. There is no place else for the water to go- a fact that will become more pressing when the channel begins to narrow. It cannot remain static, despite all the money and policy designed by some to make it so. Every epoch has it end, and that end is change, sometimes violent, other times less so. Likewise, every status quo has its ways, some violent, some less so. Where we are today and where we go tomorrow will always be related. For now two worlds overlap in my mind in ways not yet mirrored on the ground. The absence of the murdered body on the East End earth is beautiful beyond description, but I feel alone in seeing him not there. Returning to Rogers Park I readily dish out the breezy, confident East End cheer, as though it exists in unlimited supply and comes from a care free reservoir of unlimited means. It falls upon people that don’t expect it, who usually think someone randomly, or just weirdly likes and believes in them. The bigger issues can’t be resolved by any one individual. I sometimes feel as though I am standing too close to a fire on a cold night, back shivering in the wind as heat burns my face. I search for a comfortable middle place, but that balance is painful as the fire gets warmer or the wind grows colder, or both at the same time occur. Should I fear that? Hope for it? Ask for money to help solve problems, or push for more awareness of the hardness of some American places? Run around like an oddball itinerant preacher assuring people that the world is bigger and brighter than it appears right now? Is it possible to do anything truly meaningful at all? For me, it comes down to regarding everything- the good, the bad, and the complicated as at my own front door and not hidden a thousand miles beyond the East End hedges or the Rogers Park sidewalks. The children whose world I have learned so much from must not be denied this understanding. An investment in others, not of charity but of understanding and of shared effort, and of solemn insistence on an kinder, less siloed country. I can attest that standing nearer to each other can at times be both jarring and deeply enriching. It can also be a lonely space, a path that goes somewhere special only if we choose to walk it together.