Minamata Anniversary (5/12/06)

December 29, 2006

It began with the cats. In the mid-1950s, dozens of pet cats that roamed freely through the Japanese fishing town of Minamata started acting strangely. They yowled in their ragged cat voices and ran in circles; after a time, they began throwing themselves off jetties to drown in Minamata Bay. No one could understand what was going on.

Not long after that, certain unfortunate people in the town started trembling and walking oddly, looking dazed and often shouting incomphensibly as they stumbled through the town. Some suffered interludes of blurred vision and dizziness; others fell into convulsions on the street and lapsed into comas. “Minamata Disease,” as it became known, eventually affected thousands of people, many of them babies born with crippling deformities.

The first four deaths from Minamata disease were officially reported on May 1, 1956, beginning a decades-long battle to expose what turned out to be a manmade scourge. There were precisely two industries on that remote southern island of Kyushu: fishing, and a petrochemical factory run by the powerful Chisso Corp. Since 1941, Chisso had been making vinyl chloride at the plant and dumping mercury-contaminated sludge into Minamata Bay, where the mercury found its way into the fish and, eventually, the people.

It took another four years, and a riot by fishermen at the Kyushu plant, to awaken the Japanese press to what was going on, and then decades of legal and political action to bring Chisso to account. The wrangling and buck-passing continue to this day, even as a held a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of that first report was recently held, with prime minister Junichiro Koizumi present to offer apologies on behalf of the government for not acting quickly enough to stop the spread of the disease.

America, and much of the rest of the world, didn’t know about what was going on until 1972, when the great photographer W. Eugene Smith and his wife published Minamata, his book-length photoessay about the human and environmental toll wrought by Chisso’s pollution. Smith was equally legendary for the probing human quality of his work, his thorny integrity about the way it was presented, and his willingness to take insane risks to get a picture. In 1945, while chronicling front-line fighting on Okinawa, Smith suffered facial and hand injuries from a Japanese shell fragment that required years of treatment. The great war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who was with Smith on Okinama, predicted that Smith’s idealism would either break him or kill him. Pyle’s prophecy came true during the Minamata project: after being threatened several times, Smith was attacked by hired thugs who grabbed him by the legs and swung him into a concrete wall. The injuries contributed to Smith’s early death in 1978, which was hastened by years of alcohol and drug abuse, as well as destitution brought on by his refusal to allow commercial magazines to mess with his images.

I was barely into my teens when Minamata was published, and I can still feel its impact across the years. The image that has stayed with me is the one that came to embody the Minamata tragedy for the entire world: a young girl, her body twisted and wrenched by mercury poisoning in the womb, being washed in a stand-up bath. The terrible damage done to the girl’s body, and the infinite tenderness with which her mother bathes her, are captured magnificently by a great journalist whose work helped alert the world to a great crime.

Si se puede (5/1/06)

December 29, 2006

Down the hill from the palatial offices of The Opinion Mill is the Central Jersey burg of New Brunswick, which was still being called “Little Newark” during my bright college days in the 1970s. It didn’t get that name because it had a great neighborhood for Portugese restaurants, either. The only thing that kept the city breathing was the continuing presence of Rutgers University and, most crucially, Johnson & Johnson, which gave the city planners a nucleus to build around when redevelopment efforts began in earnest during the 1980s.

Much of that redevelopment was a study in low comedy. The main drag, George Street, was designated a pedestrian plaza, and the city spent a fortune tearing up the asphalt and laying down attractive brickwork. Only after it was done did the city realize that city traffic had nowhere to go without George Street, so it was reopened to vehicular traffic and the brick pavement promptly collapsed under the weight. Stories like that played out over and over again as the city poured money into the downtown area. Don’t get me started on the Ferren Parking Deck and the upstairs space that John Lynch’s wife tried to use for various business ventures like Club New York and the Hungry I restaurant, all of which fell to Earth faster and harder than a spent Saturn rocket booster. Only now, after about a quarter century, have the efforts really begun to pay off.

I’m not here to slag redevelopment — New Brunswick needed resuscitation. But while all kinds of public-private efforts were made to revitalize the city’s downtown, a more natural kind of revitalization was taking place less than a mile from George Street.

All along the French Street corridor, just south of the Robert Wood Johnson medical multiplex, Latino immigrants — mostly Mexican — have been turning a former war zone into a thriving community. My gourmand friends regularly head down there every Saturday to buy handmade tamales from a woman who sells them from the back door of her kitchen. There are a score of good, cheap Mexican joints serving the best and most authentic food you’ll find in New Jersey. Cinco de Mayo gets to be a little bigger deal each year.

The area has its problems, notably gang activity — I catch glimpses of Latin Kings iconography here and there, and I have no doubt the clashes between American-born nortenos and fresh arrivals from the old country get as nasty here as they do in Salinas and other Latin-intensive regions.

But I also see families, and a sense of life and vitality along a street that used to be bare and threatening. I’m sorry to see the formerly hot music bars like the Roxy go by the boards, but that’s what happens to scenes — they get hot and they burn out. What’s happening here now feels organic and permanent. In another decade or so, I can easily imagine the area becoming a tourist attraction.

And I’ll bet a significant percentage of the people living here are illegals.

And I for one couldn’t care less. To put it even more bluntly, I don’t give a shit.

Even some of my more fair-minded and liberal acquaintances betray a slightly weird streak of nativism when the topic of amnesty for illegals comes up.

“You wanna reward people for breaking the law?” they ask, and I say, “If the law was written by WASPs to discriminate against dark-skinned people, then frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn who breaks it.”

“But there’s no room for everyone who wants to come into America. We have to draw the line somewhere,” they cry, and I say, pointing to New Brunswick, “They’re here now and they’re already making a contribution.” I’m not interested in creating a guest-worker caste of second-class citizens just like they have in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. I don’t care if they don’t know how to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” They fought their way to get here because they wanted something better, which is the exact same reason my relatives wanted to come here. And if they didn’t come through Ellis Island to get chalk marks put on their backs and their names anglicized, all I can say is, Big fucking deal.

You wanna build a wall along the southern border? Fine, but make sure it gets built behind the Minutemen. And as soon as it’s done, chuck Michelle Malkin, Lou Dobbs, Hugh Hewitt and Pat Buchanan over the top, along with every over winger hysteric who promotes fantasies about al-Qaeda recruits wading across the Rio Grande. Ditto for any redneck who makes cracks today about the “wetback walkout.”

One of the glories of America is that it was not founded as a homeland for a particular religious or ethnic group. It was founded on an idea, and if you like the idea and want to live it, that makes you an American. The illegals now living in New Brunswick are more in touch with that principle than any of the hatemongers frothing away on the cable shows, and the country that can acknowledge them and welcome them will feel a lot more like the real America than the gnarled, dessicated wasteland of the mind Lou Dobbs and his buddies would like to see.

Driving south on Route 130 used to be like a trip backward in time. As soon as you cleared South Brunswick and entered the depths of Mercer County, you began to see glimpses of what old New Jersey roads once looked like. Instead of shiny strip malls, flea-bitten motels; instead of malls, farmer’s markets and stalls; instead of Wal-Marts, grimy-looking auto shops and bars that could have doubled for ancient jook joints. Old farmhouses with mangy siding and front doors that were only a couple of feet away from the buses and cars whooshing past. The feeling was not quite rustic but certainly not suburban and definitely not urban. To adapt the title of one of Greil Marcus’s goofier Bob Dylan books, it was The Old Weird New Jersey.

The inexorable southward march of progress is homogenizing the Route 130 corridor and will eventually turn it into another fast-food belt like Route 18. There are still pockets of the savory old weirdness, particularly in the vicinity of Roebling and Florence, but one of its major outposts on the southern portion of 130 just went dark this past weekend: the Pennsauken Mart.

The funny thing is, I can mark the passing of this grimy 35-acre indoor flea market without feeling particularly nostalgic. Think of an Arabian bazaar jammed into a big concrete-floored Quonset hut, only instead of Persian rugs and concubines the vendors were selling crappy samurai swords, the complete works of ZZ Top on eight-track tape or overpriced, Soviet-vintage electronic gear. It had a moonscaped parking lot, a dance hall, and a titty bar where the girls danced under black lights that made their pasties and G-strings glow radioactive green (the perfect spot for young Tom Waits fans to soak up some atmosphere). There were record stalls where, after much digging, you could find long sought-after treasures: I scored Roxy Music’s Stranded at the PennMart, a big deal in my high school days. There was also a small cinema — kind of a proto-multiplex made up of a couple of twin theaters, if memory serves — where after four tries I managed to get in to see Star Wars three weeks after it opened (yes, sprouts, in that pre-multiplex era you could gear up to see a popular movie and find the theater sold out, particularly if the distributor had no faith in the movie and only booked it in flea-bag venues like the Pennsauken Mart). But unless you were seriously into ptomaine poisoning, exotic fungal disorders or playing Pac-Man in a plastic-sheeted stall surrounded by guys who looked like they’d bombed out of a casting call for the sequel to Deliverance, it’s hard to imagine squirting any tears for the passing of the dear old Pennsauken Mart.

And yet, I do think it’s sort of a pity. I never went to the Route One Flea Market in New Brunswick, either, but when it was torn down to make way for a super-duper cineplex, a bit of Old Jersey was lost to make way for a chain theater showing the same 10 movies being shown everywhere else.

The endless steeplechase race for tax ratables does to towns what Alzheimer’s disease does to people. On the other hand, if redeveloping the site is part of what helps get Pennsauken back on its feet, who can complain? Farewell, Penn Mart. We hardly knew ye — nor, for that matter, spent any money at ye, neither.

Octavia Butler (1/20/06)

December 29, 2006

Lots of writers think they’re genuises, but Octavia Butler — who died over the weekend at her Seattle home — was one of the few to have it certified: she received one of those MacArthur Foundation “genius” grants in 1995, which made it possible for her to buy a house and enjoy a measure of comfort after a lifetime of scraping by with her writing. The recognition was all the more striking because Butler was a — shhhhh! — writer of science fiction, that most cootie-laden of American literary genres, of which few critics have anything good to say and from which only a few lucky talents — Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, anybody else? — are allowed to escape.

Butler’s ticket to wider recognition was Kindred, an overwhelmingly powerful novel about Dana, a modern-day black woman who is repeatedly carried back to the antebellum South in order to save the life of a white boy named Rufus, who malignantly flowers into a raging bigot and slaveholder — and who turns out to be the heroine’s ancestor. Each time she goes back, Dana (and the reader) gets a wider, deeper view of life as a slave; each time she returns from the 19th century South, Dana bears psychological scars she sees reflected in the mid-1970s America around her. Butler is particularly good at showing the psychological deformations slavery requires of both master and his chattel; in the book’s edgiest sequence, Dana is wrenched back with her white husband, and must watch the appalling ease with which he assumes the privileges of a white plantation owner.

A book that deserves to be equally well known is Parable of the Talents, a panoramic view of a fundamentalist America that puts The Handmaid’s Tale completely in the shade. Reading her obituaries, I realize that her output was much wider than I realized — I have some catching up to do, and so do you if you want to read somebody whose work was not only several cuts above most science fiction writing, but much mainstream wrirting as well.

If science fiction is a literary form that provides a symbolic arena for talking about contemporary life, then Butler explored the limits of that form:

Several years ago I wrote a novel called Dawn in which extra-solar aliens arrive, look us over, and inform us that we have a pair of characteristics that together constitute a fatal flaw. We are, they admit, intelligent, and that’s fine. But we are also hierarchical, and our hierarchical tendencies are older and all too often, they drive our intelligence — that is, they drive us to use our intelligence to try to dominate one another.

More fiction? Maybe.

But whatever is the source of our intolerance, what can we do about it? What can we do to improve ourselves? Of course, we can resist acting on our nastier hierarchical tendencies. Most of us do that most of the time already. And we can make a greater effort to teach children to resist their hierarchical impulses and beliefs and to channel what they can’t resist into sports and careers.

Will this work? Well, it hasn’t so far. Too many people will not, perhaps cannot, do it. There is, unfortunately, satisfaction to be enjoyed in feeling superior to other people.

This item from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is the best obituary I’ve seen. Fellow writer Steven Barnes offers a heartfelt tribute on his Web site. This profile makes for good reading. Here is one of the better fan sites. In 2001, NPR interviewed Butler and ran one of her short essays — find them both here.