Wednesday, November 26, 2014


     My cat Bette is a talented, black-and-white, New York City cat who I named after Bette Davis because of her large, green eyes. Like a true actress, Bette likes to be center stage. In fact, one of her routines is such a hit with my friends that I make her perform it whenever there’s an audience.
     Bette likes to stand on her head on top of the refrigerator.
First, she sits upright on top of the stage (i.e., the refrigerator). When I sing out “Bettteeee” in a high, piping voice, she curls down, rubs her face into the top of the fridge, lets all four paws go limp and stands on her head. I have to move quickly to catch her before she slides head-first off the refrigerator to the floor.
     One day my friend Keith declared that Bette’s unusual talent was remarkable enough for David Letterman’s show. “She’s perfect for Stupid Pet Tricks,” he told me. All my friends agreed, so I began staying up past my bedtime to catch “Late Night with David Letterman” on NBC.
Each night as I watched, Bette would sit on my lap. We saw a sporting dog who could shoot basketballs with his nose and an intellectual dog so clever he could select “War and Peace” from a bookcase. Pretty silly stuff, I thought.
“Bette,” I said, “You’re a shoo-in!” She tucked her paws neatly under her chest and purred.
Keith contacted David Letterman’s casting director and Bette’s audition was set for a Tuesday evening at NBC Studios. We held several rehearsals with Bette and she performed perfectly every time.
      Arriving at Rockefeller Center, we were asked to wait in a hallway with the other Late Night “wannabes.” Keith chatted with the other hopefuls in the waiting area, then whispered, “No other cats.” I felt encouraged.
Soon, a couple shuffled in with a large, squat, pasty English bulldog, who snuffled at Bette’s carrier. She let out a loud hiss. The couple proceeded to dress the dog in a ridiculous cowboy costume, complete with a bandanna, toy holster, miniature cowboy hat and funny-looking boots. Bette immediately went to sleep.
Our turn came and we were ushered into the audition room. A young woman named Barbara checked off Bette’s name on her clipboard. An upright piano was substituted for my refrigerator. I took Bette out of her box, carried her to the piano and placed her on top. She sat placidly looking around for a few moments, not the least bit nervous.
“Quite the professional,” Barbara commented, making a notation on her pad. “Now, let’s see her do her trick.”
I walked over and stood beneath Bette as I had done so many times before. In my special high, piping voice I sang, “Bettteeee!” She looked down at me blandly. “Bettteeee!” I sang again. She looked over at Keith, then at Barbara, then quite calmly jumped to the floor. I caught her and placed her back on top of the piano. “Bettteeee!” I cried, “Bettteeee!”  
She ignored me and tried to jump down again.
For 10 minutes, Keith and I stood screeching “Bettteeee!” and Bette kept trying to climb down. Barbara finally said, “Let her explore.” So we let her explore.  
Bette walked around sniffing at the corners of the room, calm and unperturbed as ever. I picked her up and she purred.
“She seems happy now,” said Keith. “Let’s try again.”
I set her up on the piano again and we called out “Bettteee!” in singsong unison. Even Barbara joined in. Bette gave us one bemused look, jumped down and ran over and began scratching at the door.
Barbara was sympathetic. “That’s our problem with cats,” she said, “they’ll do it at home every time, but in the studio, they refuse. I had hoped Bette would be different.”  
She made a final notation on her pad as I put Bette back in her carrier. On our way out, the English bulldog came clumping in, hardly able to walk in his cowboy boots. His eyes bulged so, it looked like the bandanna was choking him. “Stupid looking dog,” muttered Keith.
As soon as we got home, I put Bette on the refrigerator and sang, “Bettteeee!”  
She gurgled coyly and performed her routine flawlessly. After I caught her, she looked up at me with an unmistakable smirk.
“She did it on purpose,” snorted Keith. I couldn’t argue with him.
Some weeks later my phone rang late at night and an excited voice commanded me to “Put on Letterman!”
I switched the channel and there he was, the English bulldog making a complete fool of himself. With a mini-guitar between his fat paws, he snorted along to a country western song.
David Letterman grinned.
The studio audience guffawed.
Even I laughed.
Suddenly, Bette leapt from out of nowhere onto the table next to the television set and sat staring at me. In contrast to the ridiculous dog, she looked proud and eloquent. As I admired her, a question formed in my mind.
“Bette, why don’t cats do stupid pet tricks?”
I thought I saw the answer in her green eyes.
No self-respecting cat, and certainly not Bette, would sacrifice Dignity for fame and fortune, not even for David Letterman!

Note: This essay was published in CATS magazine in 1993 then again in CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL: THE CAT DID WHAT? in 2014.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

IF THE SHU FITS ...Festival for All Skid Row Artists

At The Festival For All Skid Row Artists, now in its 5th year, we were invited to perform a fifteen minute segment from “If The SHU Fits” a dramatic reading that I had recently directed at the Unitarian Church in Santa Monica. This is a compilation of writings by men and women who have been, or still are, in solitary confinement in United States prisons. Also writings from members of their families outside. In California, SHU stands for Secure Housing Unit and the implicit protest in this performance is that, as declared by the United Nations, long-term Solitary Confinement is Torture!
KevinMichael Key, who co-produces the Festival, performed in the show and again at the Festival.  One of his portrayals was a man in prison in Malone, New York who pleaded: “Sometimes I feel as though I’m walking through a cemetery of lost souls. Seeing as how almost everyone around me is either already dead; in the process of dying or simply withering away like a corpse left to rot away in some decrepit grave with the name and epitaph erased away!” For another, who had spent 25 years in the SHU, he read this ironic statement: “I now face the rest of my life at Supermax, locked in a concrete tomb, dying in complete isolation. I have been approved to be transferred to this torture facility by psychological professionals who affirm that I am sane enough to be driven crazy!
Reverend Sidonie Smith, reading for the sister of another SHU prisoner who had taken part in a fierce hunger strike, persuasively laid out the humane and practical solutions to the incarceration of such men: “The five core demands are just human things that you and I would respect: 1. End group punishment and administrative abuse; 2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify the gang status criteria; 3. Comply with the U.S. Commission recommendations to end long-term solitary confinement ; 4. Provide nutritious food; 5. Create and expand constructive programs!”
Most poignant was the reading by Paula Brooks, as a woman in a New Jersey SHU, describing how she saw from her sealed window a plant growing in the brick wall outside. She reads: “As the wind would blow against the leaves of this plant, I would actually close my eyes and pretend this very wind was blowing against my face. I know it sounds crazy, but it was the only part of nature that I had.”
Deeply emotional was Sherri Walker as the mother of a young man, locked away out of her reach, in the SHU at California’s Pelican Bay: “You worry day by day if your child is OK. You can’t visit them because they are so far away. They can’t call you. All you can do is write them. You wonder if they are alive or dead and the only thing I can do is pray!”
Most powerful was Craig Walter, speaking for an inmate at Mansfield Correctional Institute in Ohio, an eloquent and angry poet. He opened the reading with these words: “Within a cage, How can you Lock me in a cage, for some misdeed done, Within a cage? All you can do, is feed my rage!” Then he closed with another poem: “I shall not die a thousand deaths of compromise Giving up names in exchange for food or blanket. I will bite my own arm to smother my screams And rob you of the satisfaction when you disassemble me…” He ended the presentation with this moving statement: “My name is Sean Swain. All I have is this pen, this paper, and the truth. Please remember that I lived.”
Compiled by Melvin Ishmael Johnson and Andy Griggs, “If The SHU Fits” was commissioned by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, and the Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace. This one-hour dramatic piece is being presented at various churches as an appeal to the public to stand forward and denounce the use of solitary confinement now rampant in our prison system.
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SKID ROW WALKATHON ...Downtown Los Angeles

Going to The Skid Row Artists Festival at Gladys Park and 6th Street on Saturday, October 18.
Not knowing where Gladys Park is, I took the Metro train to Pershing Square (as a downtown friend advised) and started walking south along Spring Street. It was about 1:30 in the afternoon and I was nearly to Sixth Street when I saw two bicycle patrol officers.  I asked the closest one, who was white, where was the Skid Row Festival. He was unaware there was one (only in its 5th year) but when I asked for Gladys Park they both seemed to know where it was and pointed me back to 5th Street. This led me gradually into the depths of an area where shops became shabbier and finally almost non-existent.
As I walked, I observed how the sidewalks gradually became occupied by a motley assemblage of people – men, women, even some children – either hurrying by or lying on the shady side of the street. After a few blocks, I was suddenly accosted by the same bicycle cops. Now they wheeled up to me and said the park I wanted was up ahead. However, both were clearly concerned and the black officer warned me not to go in there.
“There’s no sign or sound of a festival” he said urgently, “and it’s a dangerous park. Don’t go in. You’ll be attacked!”
Stubborn New Yorker that I am, I assured them both I had been to worse (thinking of Bryant Park back in the dark drug ages), so they reluctantly let me go off and off I boldly went. There were actually two parks at the corner they indicated. One was a gated plaza in front of the Union Rescue Mission building and within its stately metal fence elderly people sat at neat tables. No festival there. The other park, diagonally across the street was ominous. Hundreds of men in large groups, some at gaming tables, all huge and hulking, full of sound and energy. No festival but hardly a place for this skinny white female.
As I paused at the green metal gates no one paid any attention to me but, clearly, stepping inside was not advisable. I stood there in a quandary – where was this damn festival if this is Gladys Park. I looked up and lo! above me in large metal letters it blared “San Julian Park!” Hey, those silly cops had sent me to the wrong park. Ok. So where the hell was Gladys?
I crossed the street and asked a young woman sitting dully on a wall outside a church. She waved vaguely to the south so I soldiered on down there. Now the buildings all seemed deserted and the streets packed with tenants. Hundreds of people covered the sidewalks, with couches, chairs, mattresses, even some with canopies. They paid me no heed, preoccupied with their own interests, some holding court with neighbors, some muttering to themselves in a mad dream, some sleeping, some sharing take-out food. I walked another block. More people, no sign of a park.
I was at a corner and there sat an elderly black man in a wheelchair. He appeared to be nonchalant in this setting so I stopped and asked him,
“Excuse me, do you know how I can get to Gladys Park?”
His eyes were a gentle light blue, intelligent eyes in a kindly face. He half smiled.
“You have to go over to Sixth Street. Then go left and walk about four to five blocks and its on your right.”
A teenage girl, dark-skinned, in dungarees and crisp sweatshirt, was walking quietly by us and he called out her name. She stopped and smiled a warm greeting to him before walking on. I saw this man was no hobo, he had class and, in another world, we could have had a chat and a cuppa tea to discuss events of the day. But we were on Skid Row, and I was just a visitor from another part of town. So, explaining that I was on the way to a festival, where my actors were going to perform, I thanked him and walked on in the direction he pointed.

By now I had traveled over a mile through reams of sadness and waste and I was suddenly overwhelmed by the thought that perhaps I was searching for a myth. That there could never be a festival for artists amid this desolation. I felt angry that people, all of them real people, were left to languish in such desperate poverty. I was tempted to turn back, surely none of my actors would be there if I was unable to find the place. Maybe there was no such place as Gladys Park. 

I was way past San Pedro Street when I heard the music. Drums, gospel singing, an uproarious festival of sound. There it was, Gladys Park, and there they were – my beautiful dedicated actors sitting on a bench, waiting for me to arrive. I heard someone say, “There’s Morna!” and the celebration commenced.