Saturday, September 16, 2017

To a Young Person on September 11th

A friend of mine has a daughter in ninth grade. She was troubled that her school didn't do more in remembrance of September 11th. Reading it, I was heartbroken because in her writing I felt her passion and pain. I tried to put myself in her shoes, and I could only begin to imagine how confusing it must be. 

I started writing the following piece in the hope that my perspective could bring her clarity. As I wrote, I realized there are probably many young people who feel the way she does, and I want the opportunity to share it with them as well.

I'm named after a man who died of gangrene three days after taking a Vichy French bullet during the Battle of St. Cloud in North Africa on November 10, 1942. I'm telling you this so you understand that I've spent a good deal of my 47 years on earth considering how best to honor the fallen.

I saw the towers fall from up close. In 2007 I wrote about my memories of that day. It's important that I share those memories so you understand how that tragedy affected me, and how deeply I care about honoring the victims.

Since that day, I've watched my country's response with horror.

We went to war with a country that had nothing to do with the terrorist attack, and even the most conservative estimates put the death toll from that war at well over one hundred thousand civilian noncombatants. For every one of the September 11th victims, at least forty other people—people who had nothing to do with them—are now dead.

Three years ago people took images from September 11th and twisted them to justify torture. I never thought I'd see Americans do anything that evil, but Americans did that. I watched them do it. They did it with gladness in their hearts, and the most sickening part was that they seemed to think themselves patriots. It was one of the most obscene displays I've witnessed in my life. I'd like to share with you my response to that desecration.

And now people evoke those same images to provoke fear and hate. You weren't alive, or aware, for a lot of what I've just recounted, but you're old enough to have processed that. You've only seen the tip of it, but for sixteen years people have used the September 11th victims as kindling. And the fires they built desecrate the very memories that those so-called patriots purport to honor.

Now you may say that I should honor the victims in my own way regardless of what other people do, and I wouldn't disagree with that in principle. But on a practical level, I can't control what other people do with those painful memories. Can you blame me for not wanting to conjure images I've seen so many abuse?

And yet. If I remain silent, all you'll hear is the narrative put forth by those who aren't. Here are a few snippets from the replies to your Dad's post about your writing.

Very nice to see some of our younger generation respect and care for that day......wish there was more like her.....very well done......and speaking as a fireman....all my brothers and sisters that lost their lives in those towers would thank you as well....!!!!! Thank You for caring..!!! 
Way to go.... for doing exactly what you're suggesting the school do.... more. For going out of your way to voice what those who died can't, for not drifting through life with a shrug, for not being afraid of offending someone... 
...that was awesome. You so inspiring. Why have Americans forgot one of our worst times in our history.

The guy who mentioned his brothers and sisters that lost their lives? I've seen him use images of that day to vilify Muslims.

The bit about "not drifting through life with a shrug, for not being afraid of offending someone"? I'm not drifting through life with a shrug, and I'm bloody well not afraid of offending someone. I'm scared out of my mind at the thought of those horrific memories being used to murder even more innocent people.

"Why have Americans forgot"? I will never forget.

I ain't quiet about it because I've forgotten. I'm quiet because I remember too well.

I can't speak for the teachers and administrators at your school. Maybe there are those who are afraid of offending someone. Maybe there are those who would rather let the memories fade than deal with the pain. But it wouldn't surprise me if there were a lot of folks who feel the way I do.

Memories of September 11th

Up until September 11th, I worked in One Liberty Plaza, aka the NASDAQ building, right across the street from the south tower. I was running late that day; I was on the subway from Brooklyn when the planes hit. All anyone on the subway knew was that there were "smoke conditions" at Cortlandt Street, the stop right under the towers, and so everyone got off at Rector, just a few blocks south of there. As I walked up the stairs to the street at about 9:05, my first thought was "Why is there a ticker-tape parade?". I walked half a block east and saw the source of the papers looming so surreally in the sky over the dark spires of Trinity Church.

I somehow managed to get a cell connection through to my sister. I called Grace from a payphone. Then I walked over to One Liberty just to see if I should be at work. I can't express the unreality of the day any better than that: the towers were burning, and I was worried about getting in trouble for not being at my desk.

The guard at One Liberty said "No, go home." I walked around One Liberty to the north, and then to the west, crossing the street so that I was within a hundred feet of the south tower. This was probably a half hour before it fell. I asked a cop if there was anything I could do, and he said "No, get back." I wonder what happened to him.

I walked a few blocks northeast. People were standing around in the streets, staring up at the burning towers. At one point a stampede very nearly happened over by Broad and Fulton when someone got the idea that one of the towers was falling. I remember staring at the towers and saying to myself "I don't think they're going to fall, but still... I think I'd better get the fuck out of Dodge." So, not wanting to mess with the trains, I began my customary walk north, over the Brooklyn Bridge, and to my apartment in Park Slope. The masses of people swarming over the empty roadway and milling over the bridge made me think of the exodus from Sodom, and as I looked back I thought about being turned into a pillar of salt.

On the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian overpass, there are two large rectangular areas where the walking area flares out around each caisson. I stood in the "lee" of the pedestrian flow at the southwestern edge of the western caisson and, about a minute after hearing someone nearby say ", they'd never fall.." watched the first tower fall. An inarticulate sound of abnegation and a tingling wave of horror swept through the crowd, and Manhattan disappeared in a cloud of dust. I turned dumbly, sickly, and started walking the rest of the way home.

I'm thankful for that voice that told me to get out of Dodge. I'm thankful to those people who ran toward, ran up, when all common sense screamed down and away. And here I sit, in my cubicle in Manhattan. And it still doesn't feel real. Part of me saw a little box with consummately filmic flames coming out of it fall down. Part of me knew I was seeing lots of people die. The parallax is still vertiginous.

-Hugh Yeman, September 11, 2007

Saturday, August 19, 2017

We Must Be Clear

Lotta talk recently about statues going down.

That reaction you just had to that first sentence? I know how you feel. I know it sounds silly, but regardless of where you stand on this, I know how you feel.

I don't expect you to believe me. Not unless I give you something first. Probably not even then. But here goes.

During the last few days, some of you have recast the talking point from the Trump speech: "What about Washington and Jefferson? They owned slaves. Do we take down their statues too? Where does it end?" Here's what goes through my head.

What a load of horseshit. You're talking to me about history? I revere history. The last fucking thing in the world you wanna come at me with is history, because you will lose. So take your absurd slippery slope argument, stick it up your ass, and walk away before you embarrass yourself even more than you already have.

That's self-righteousness, and I'm not proud of it. I'm admitting it so you see that I'm aware of my baser motivations, and strive not to act on them. But that's only the first reason why I've been working so hard not to condemn those who disagree with the removal of Confederate statues.

The second reason is that I know well that feeling of violation that comes when someone tries to erase history. I felt it when I heard that Disney has never released a home video version of "Song of the South". I felt it when I found out just how hilariously wrong history remembers the Spanish Armada. I felt it when I learned why we remember a skewed version of the Battle of Trenton. I feel it every time I see the chasm between the story and the event.

But the third reason... that's the thorniest one of all. And it's northern liberals like me who most need to look it square in the eye.

When I was a kid, I had teachers tell me the Civil War wasn't about slavery; it was about state's rights. We liberals love to point out that dastardly retcon. But we don't tend to talk about the other one: the lie that the south was for slavery, and the north against it.

I seem to recall one or two teachers telling me that plenty of northerners were pro-slavery, and plenty more didn't care, and I give them a lot of credit for that. But it didn't take. I would never have known the depth of my misapprehension if I hadn't studied my genealogy.

After I discovered that my great-great-grandfather was an assistant surgeon in the Civil War, I found some newspaper articles from around that time that contextualized his enlistment. Boy did they contextualize it. I went down a rabbit hole that led to an uncomfortable clarity. Many northerners were against abolition, for reasons ranging from a belief that "the negro" was better off as a slave, to a conviction that peace was worth more than emancipation, to simply not caring at all.

So while the Civil War was about slavery, support for slavery did not divide along clean geographic lines. That's where I see my liberal peers falter. Too often I see them pointing triumphant fingers at the false dichotomies of north and south, city and country, intellectual and redneck. It does not work like that, and it never did.

This, more than anything else, is why I feel we leap too easily to gleeful support for toppling statues of Confederate generals. Some of my friends denounce them as traitors, and they're not wrong. And. Had they been born in another state, most generals would have fought for the other side. Vicissitudes of birth and geography cloud the question of heroism and villainy.

And yet, with all that said—despite my revulsion at historical revisionism and my understanding of the moral pitfalls and logical fallacies—I still land solidly on the side of taking those statues down. Hell, the simple fact that they attract Nazi vermin would be enough for me to support those who want them gone. But that ain't it by a long shot.

I support taking those statues down because there is no such thing as pure history. That chasm between the event and the story I mentioned? It's never not there.

It's not about the history. It's about the historiography.

History is alive, mercurial, shifting from moment to moment. We are always crafting our narrative, always looking back to find new context, new interpretations, new sources of inspiration. We always have, always will, recast the previous generation's vision. We always have, always will, take down statues.

So, even if we didn't take into account the violent agenda that was operating when most of those statues were erected, we would have the moral authority to take them down. Without self-righteousness, without undue rancor, we select from our past those facets on which we want to reflect. We get to choose, with wisdom and perspective, that which best illuminates our shared history.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Cultural Impact of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre

On the February 14th episode of the Unpopular Opinion podcast (Pretty Scary - "Mrs. Doody"), Caitlin from "White Wine True Crime" said the following about the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

Here's what I find most fascinating about this: how unremarkable it is. The St. Valentine's Day Massacre is exactly what you think of when you think of the mob: a bunch of guys with suits outside getting shot with Tommy-guns. I'm just fascinated why this is the story that persists through time. It has so many cliche elements to it, I don't know if that's why, or if it started all these cliche elements. Why is this case the one we always hear about? If there's anybody out there who has a love of organized crime history, I'd be interested in hearing what it is about this case...

This was like catnip for me, because it's exactly the sort of question I love exploring by digging up old newspaper articles. In my genealogy work, I've discovered that the modern sense of an event may bear little resemblance to how people of the time saw it. The choices that newspaper publishers made speaks to the sort of content that they thought would sell papers, so poring over contemporary articles has provided me with insights into late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century culture that I never could have gotten otherwise.

So I went to and searched for articles from 1929 that contained the words "2122 North Clark Street". I cropped the images and put the "clippings" in an album linked below. Below that is a stream of phrases that leaped out at me as I read through the articles. I stopped after six, because the content started to repeat itself. Those repeating patterns reveal the particular images and stories that news writers of 1929 thought would grab readers' attention.

The most obvious thread was brutality; words like "slaughter" abound. But look a little deeper. It's not just brutality that characterized these stories, but automated brutality. Now consider the year: 1929. World War I, famous for traumatizing the world with the advent of mechanized warfare, was just ten years in the past. To those readers, the thought of lining people up and executing them as dispassionately as one would cows in a slaughterhouse was still a shockingly new horror. Sitting here in 2017, having steeped in such images since childhood, it's difficult if not impossible for me to imagine how disturbing this was.

Further exploring the theme of dehumanizing mechanized murder, we see an obsession with cars. Again, think about the year. The 1920s were the first time in history when a working class person could afford a car, and that transformed the way people lived and worked. It must have been fascinating for consumers, who had only just begun to benefit from this innovation, to see it used for crime.

Note that, although the seven men seem to have been herded into a back room and executed, some articles claim that they were killed by bullets sprayed from machine guns mounted on cars. At least one article contains both contradictory versions! This error is understandable when you consider the following.

Today's slayings, was something new in Chicago gang warfare. Before the gangsters took their victims for a "ride", luring them into automobiles and killing them, or else swept past in automobiles and raked their victims with gunfire.
Never before, however, has one gang invaded the stronghold of another, rounded up the victims and calmly shot them to death. The slayers escaped today in approved gangster fashion, dashing away in waiting motor cars.

So this story was a twist on what readers were used to. It took the fresh concept of a drive-by shooting and incorporated other captivating story elements never before associated with gang warfare: the planning, the "siege" by an enemy disguised as police, and the herding of an enemy into a well-lit, impersonal, mechanized killing floor. Oh, and it also included a juicy story about a possible connection between the crime and the election of an alderman. Nothing like collusion between the mob and the Chicago machine to spice up a story.

Chicago's latest, and bloodiest of all, gang killings
72 previous gang killings in the last four years without a conviction--many without an arrest
lined up their victims against a brick wall
two dressed as policemen
four theories: two involving liquor, politics and the cleaning and dyeing business

line victims up against wall and shoot them down
bodies are riddled with bullets from shotguns and machine guns
pose as policemen
invade headquarters of rival gang and commit murder wholesale
summarily executed
cold blood

posing as policemen
invade the stronghold
mow them down with automatic pistols and machine guns
wholesale execution is carried out with the precision of an army firing squad
posing as policemen
lined up seven helpless, unarmed victims with their faces to a white brick wall
mowed them down with automatic pistols and machine guns
wholesale execution
precision of an army firing squad
it was an innovation in Chicago gang history
They rushed into the garage with drawn pistols and machine guns, infoming the seven men they were police officers. Some of them flashed stars and others wore parts of police uniforms. Without ado they herded the victims to a courtyard in the rear.
Overhead gleamed a powerful electric light to make the work of the firing squad easier
The victims, killed by their merciless executioners without having a chance at escape sprawled grotesquely on the floor
wholesale killing
brutally annihilated
wholesale slaughter, unlike any killings ever before attempted in the gang war of annihilation
wholesale raids
active alliance between crime and politics
Alderman Titus Haffa
aldermanic elections, a laundry labor controversy and a Detroit rum running syndicate

brutally shot
victims of a band of men who invaded their north side headquarters
intruders posed as policemen
men lined up against wall and shot down with shot and machine guns
lined up against a wall and summarily executed
shot them down in cold blood
heaped bodies
displaying stars
herded their victims
Today's slayings, was something new in Chicago gang warfare. Before the gangsters took their victims for a "ride", luring them into automobiles and killing them, or else swept past in automobiles and raked their victims wtih gunfire.
Never before, however, has one gang invaded the stronghold of another, rounded up the victims and calmly shot them to death. The slayers escaped today in approved gangster fashion, dashing away in waiting motor cars.

lined up against wall and shot
lined up against a wall and summarily executed
posing as police
shot them down in cold blood
heaped bodies
displaying stars
lining them up against a wall with hands over their heads
mowed down by machine gun fire from two automobiles
The guns were mounted on the sides of the two cars

fell like ten-pins

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sons of Onondaga in the Age of Fraternal Organizations

Months ago I found a fragmentary newspaper article from the late 1800s which mentions my great-grand-aunt. The headline was "FAMOUS SONS OF ONONDAGA", which gave me the mistaken impression that she was part of a group with that name. Eventually I figured out that she was part of a centennial celebration for Onondaga County, and that "Sons of Onondaga" was a general term that newspaper writers liked to toss around in articles about new recruits, veterans and sports figures.

By the time I figured out that my great-grand-aunt wasn't in a group named "Sons of Onondaga", I'd found two references, in newspapers from 1908 and 1912, to a group with that name. I've included images and transcriptions below. The articles—particularly the second one—were like catnip to me. Even though they had nothing to do with any of my ancestors, my obsessive brain couldn't resist researching them.

I'm fascinated at the way people in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Americans gravitated toward fraternal organizations. The Masons were just the tip of the iceberg; it seems like everyone was a member of at least one organization based on politics, business, or hobbies. So when I found these articles about a society of prominent figures from Onondaga in New York City, I was hooked. Also, I found the goofiness of the poem irresistible.

It didn't take too much Googling to confirm my suspicion that every name in that poem is a reference to a well-known person from Onondaga. They were probably also members of the Sons of Onondaga. I found out, at least in general, who most of them were. I've included notes and links below. If you have any information on those I didn't find, please contact me.

(transcription below)

Skaneateles Free Press.
Skaneateles, N. Y., TUESDAY, APRIL 14, 1908.



Collin Armstrong, editor of the Wall Street Summary, lectured last night before the New York chapter of the American Institute of Banking on "The Relation of Speculation to Business." Most of his argument was directed against the proposed legislation aimed to stop the so-called Wall Street gambling, short sales, trading in futures and on margin. Most of the agitation in favor of such measures, he declared, comes either from those who are ignorant of the workings of the markets or those who have lost money and are doing the "baby cot."

Without marginal trading, he said, it would be impossible to carry on the business of the world. Dealings on margin are simply credit transactions, he explained, and differ only in form from those made by real estate dealers and investors, by manufacturers and merchants, the world over. There is not enough money in the world to put business on a cash basis.

Mr. Armstrong blamed such get rich quick stock enterprises as the New York-Chicago Electric Air Line for a large part of the criticism which is made against Wall Street, although Wall Street and the exchanges are in no way responsible. He concluded that the exchanges cannot be legislated out of existence without driving business out of the country, and that the only solution of the problem is for public opinion to make it so hot for the gamblers that they will quit.—N. Y. Sun, Friday, April 20th.

Mr. Armstrong, who is a prominent writer on financial topics, is a native of Fayetteville, Onondaga county, and was elected president of the Society of Sons of Onondaga, recently organized in New York city. Mr. Armstrong married Miss Elizabeth Hale, fomerly of Skaneateles, daughter of W. S. Hale, who is now a resident of Neenah, Wis.


To Sons of Onondaga.

Verses to the Banquet Committee of the Sons of Onondaga, who dine at Astor Hotel, New York, to-morrow night:

I'm on the wing, with not a thing
  in shape of evening clothes.
My well filled bag begins to sag
  With what? God only knows.

Should I appear, would Sherlock jeer
  And Armstrong throw a fit?
Would Shubert, Lee, cry out in gless
  Old pal, your welcome, Nit?

Would Whelan, George make me disgorge
  As he does those who smoke?
Would my friend Gere, man of good cheer,
  Consider it a joke?

Would Marshall rare, whose "Cabinet Chair"
  Looms now up into view,
Recall the day he ran away
  And left me in the stew?

In Cedar street, he threw so neat,
  A stone of wondrous size;
The window crashed, the man we thrashed
  Much to my great surprise.

Would Sam Wandell leave his snug shell
  To save me from retreat,
As he each fall in Freeman Hall
  Talked us to sure defeat?

Would Marion, Frank think me a crank
  Unfit to dine with you?
Would Joe Tebeau appear to know
  His friend of ninety-two?

Would our good Mayor rise from his chair
  And welcome me with joy?
And say to our sons, present your guns,
  Salute! A white haired boy?

My suit of gray I know you'll say
  in cut is up to date.
For Charlie Alvord thinks he knows
Just how to cut the swellest clothes—
  He charges on his slate.

My necktie red perhaps I'll shed,
  Unless you're color blind.
With striped blue, white collar, too,
  I hope you boys won't mind.

I've sung my song, and now so long,
  Don't think this is a ruse.
Of one in need of a good feed,
  Far from old Syracuse.
                JOHN J. CUMMINS,
Scranton, February 18.

Collin Armstrong 
A famous figure in New York State finance and advertising.

Lee Shubert
A Jewish-Lithuanian-born American theatre owner/operator and producer and the eldest of seven siblings of the theatrical Shubert family.

? Is that just a reference to the fictional character, or the nickname of a member?

? No idea.

George Whelan
"Uncle George, as the family still calls him, was "a player." He loved to speculate in stocks and did so with varying degrees of success. He was usually associated with tobacco millionaire James B. Duke and speculator Thomas Fortune Ryan. Uncle George was sometimes allied with Bethlehem Steel's CEO Charles Schwab. My grandfather's most vivid memory of Uncle George was watching him conduct a complex business deal over three of those 1920s "candlestick" phones at once."

? No idea.

Marshall rare
? I'm not sure if I'm reading the blurry text correctly.

Cedar Street
? The poem seems to refer to an incident in which someone named Marshall threw a stone through a window on Cedar Street.

Samuel H. Wandell
A prominent attorney and author.

FindAGrave memorial
His book on hotel law

Freeman Hall
Elk's Lodge, corner of East Jefferson and S. Townsend Streets.

Frank J. Marion
American motion picture pioneer. Member of the class responsible for the S.U. colors.

Joseph Tebeau
Prominent figure in the Syracuse press. Was city editor of Syracuse Courier in the 1890s. Was assistant to the editor of the New York Times for many years.
According to one article, he worked for the New York sun.

Charles Alvord
Horse Racer

John J. Cummins
Leader of the Democratic party in Onondaga County.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Don't come at me with your horseshit equivocation.

Hi. My name is Hugh Yeman. I'm named after another Hugh Yeman. Here he is.

And here I am next to his grave.

Hugh Yeman died of gangrene three days after taking a Vichy French bullet during the Battle of St. Cloud in North Africa on November 10, 1942. Follow that bullet back. Roll back all that German steel across the sand dunes, across the water. All those forces were set in motion by a little man who discovered he could gain popularity by telling poor people that malignant, subhuman foreigners were to blame for all their problems.

So when you tell me there's "no difference" between the candidates, I think you're a goddamn infant who shits all over the most howlingly obvious lessons of history in pursuit of an onanist tableau featuring you looking down on my plebeian world from such a rarefied perspective that you can't possibly distinguish between the two parties. And I think you can go fuck yourself.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Running With Young People

Here's me and  my Goddaughter on Saturday. She's showing off the stains that she got while climbing a pine tree in her yard. The tree-climbing thing? Yeah, she got that from me.

To say that I get a warm feeling at the thought of her climbing trees seems inadequate. "Warmth" doesn't come close to articulating the electric tingle that surges through me as a see my childhood echoing in her. Yet even that pales in comparison to how I felt on Sunday.

I invited my Goddaughter to join me on a run, and she enthusiastically accepted. As she led me around her neighborhood, I observed her form. I asked her if she'd had any instruction in running, and was amazed to hear that she hadn't. From her fingers to her toes, I see things she's doing and, more importantly, things she's not doing, that tell me she's a natural. She's got a strong foundation, and I'm thrilled at the potential I see in her.

On the way back she talked about her running, and she said something so familiar that it was like a bell ringing in my head: "...I can't keep up..." The way she phrased it, I assumed she meant that she'd been out running with a group, and couldn't keep up with them. When I asked her about it, I found out that's not what she meant. She wasn't referring to any group runs. She simply felt that, when she ran by herself, she couldn't keep her speed up.

Is there a word for "hilarity" that carries a deep undercurrent of empathy? There should be. That's what I felt when I heard this. Her childhood was nothing like mine, yet the way she compared herself unfavorably to some imagined benchmark was instantly and deeply familiar.  There was no one telling her she wasn't running fast enough. No one but her.

I told her about the decades I spent feeling like I was too slow, too this, too that. I told her how I finally learned to relax, let go of my expectations, and give myself the room to explore. I struggled to articulate the paradox of finding my speed and stamina only after I stopped looking for it.

As soon as I got her home, I went out again to get in my weekend distance run.  As I ran, I thought about what I'd attempted to convey to my Goddaughter, and how to distill it down to something pithy. Suddenly a new aphorism popped into my head: "Come at running with a feeling of exploration, not expectation." That's good. I'm going to start using that with the young people I run with.

I've expended a lot of thought on that distillation process, but it's easy compared to articulating the joy I feel when I share running with the young people in my life. That's because I'm not just nurturing the next generation. I'm reaching back to the younger me and healing us both.

Forty years ago there was an obese little kid who was already busy constructing the sort of expectations my Goddaughter voiced. He was telling himself what he was, what he was not and what he would never be. He was furiously carving the lavish filigree of his own limitations.

I spent half a lifetime hating my body, which was unfair because nothing about my situation was my body's fault. I was the one shoveling food into it. Only during the last few years have I cultivated a collaborative relationship with my body. And as magnificent and rewarding as all that work feels, the greatest part of it all is sharing it with a young person.

When I was a kid, I couldn't see the bars of the prison I'd built around me. And now I get to take all that pain and turn it around. I get to make something positive out of it. I get to show my nephew and my niece and my Goddaughter that there are other ways to be: that we're always capable of more growth than we imagine. I get to present to them options I didn't have.

And as I reach out to them, I get to reach back. I get not only to reconcile with the young me, but to cherish and comfort him. When I run with a young person, I feel like I'm saying to that young me "Hey, you know what? We turned out OK."