MacLean Gander grew up in Manhattan and attended private schools there, a child of white middle-class privilege. After graduating with an English degree from Harvard, where he studied with Seamus Heaney and Robert Fitzgerald, he was the Hoyt Fellow in Creative Writing at Boston University in 1981.
He worked for Newsweek International during the 1980s, then spent two years in Manila, where he covered the Philippine “People’s Revolution,” accredited to The Nation.
For the past three decades he has worked at Landmark College in various roles, including 11 years as Chief Academic Officer.
He currently is Professor of English and Journalism, teaching courses in composition, journalism, and education, along with writing workshops in short fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction.
His sense of the concept of witness derives partly from family heritage—his maternal grandmother was a Quaker, and his parents were bohemian existentialists in the East Village of Manhattan after the second war—and partly from his experience and reading as a journalist and teacher over the past four decades. Any words he writes in this column are his own and not affiliated with any other organization.
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Street Life, New York City
We’re in New York, Shanta and me, a week of museums and dancing and visiting old friends. I’m outside this Airbn place we rented on the West side not far from Lincoln Center, taking some air. It’s a warm night, two days before Christmas. Our last night in the city. Standing near the curb, I hear a woman’s voice rise, angry but not shrill—quite sure of what she was saying—and I turn to see her in dispute with her young man. They look like college students, and she is in his face, not letting him get away with anything. Hard to hear what the argument is, except I hear her say that just because she only had pizza once in her life while she was raised by her Taiwanese parents, it didn’t mean she was any less American than he is. This remark fascinates me, so I listen.
For a moment the argument between the two kids gets so heated I think I might need to walk over and calm them down, but then she starts walking away from him, really angry, saying “thank you, thank you” as if he had finally confirmed some flaw in his character for her of which she had been aware all along, but only now had fully realized. They are keeping reasonable physical space and there’s no need to intervene—she’s walking away and he starts to chase after her, kind of angry but more in a desperate way, like he’s realizing just what he might lose if she walks on him. She is very beautiful, and you can tell she’s smart from the way she wards him off as he moves in. She has his number.
The two kids are slowly arguing each other up the block and I’m about to head back inside. Then this couple comes swinging by on the sidewalk, late forties, burly guy with a blonde woman on his arm. I notice them the way anyone who grew up in New York, just keeping track of whose around. He’s tall and florid, tugging his wife by the hand. I’m not thinking much of it as they pass me, then the guy makes some sort of crack as they’re going into the building, commenting on the kids’ lover’s brawl, something kind of nasty, like this is why I came to New York, to see this sort of shit.
The young woman turns away from her guy and says, in a voice both clear and calm, what did you say? And of course, his reply was just perfect, in some sort of alternate universe: Oh, and you’re a chink, too, he says. This drives the poor young woman off the tracks, after just having this same argument with her boy, and she comes after him, a tigress in black leather jacket and New York City power, saying, what did you call me? What did you call me?
The blonde woman is trying to tug her guy upstairs, away from the scene, but he’s out of control now. He starts to come after the young woman, and then her boyfriend comes in behind her—you can tell how much he cares for her—and gets between them. I’m still just watching this, and a small crowd has gathered by now. Some of the folks have their smart-phones out, filming the scene, but I am just watching when the boyfriend jumps ahead of his girl and comes into the face of the guy who had insulted her, shouting what did you call her? What did you call her?
Then the big guy takes the smaller man down in one quick heap alongside the garbage cans in that alcove off the front door of the building, beating on him, pinning him down, and the boyfriend’s woman jumps on top of the guy, pulling at his hair and screaming, and I am still watching with the crowd but trying to say something, and a couple of other guys are edging in, too, each of us trying to figure out how to calm things down without getting hurt ourselves.
Somehow, they break apart—I think the guy’s wife was in there, along with another guy who pulled off the young woman from his back, and then they were separated with all of the crowd trying to admonish them—I think that is the proper word—to just separate, get on with their business. But the woman he had called a chink was so angry still, and she had dialed up the cops to report a hate crime—it turns out several folks had dialed up the cops by then, but they hadn’t got there yet. Almost everyone had a phone out for some purpose or another.
There was a sort of pivotal moment, in my memory at least, where the young man—he was Italian, and short, but brave and wiry—and this older guy, who looked like a younger Rick Perry, in town for Christmas with his woman—were facing each other on the steps. The older man was in the entry-way of the building and his wife was tugging at him, and the college kid was about two steps up, and behind him his girl was shouting that this was her city, that it was her city, and it was her country. They looked like they were about to get into it again, so I walked down the steps and stood between the two men, facing the big guy, and said that it was time for him to go inside.
He told me to get out of the way or he would hit me, too, and I just said, no man, it’s time to go back inside. I had my hands up in the air, and I knew he wouldn’t hit me, crazy as he was. I was really trying to help his wife, who was doing her best to control him without much success, but I also wanted to make sure that the college kid didn’t have to go down on the concrete again. And I cared about the young Chinese woman. I was on her side.
It was an interesting moment for me, since I never have been involved in any physical altercation except one time on the basketball floor when I was fifteen, and I did not feel particularly brave. But as I stood there the women managed to pull their men apart, and everything was briefly cool, everyone on their cellphones, and then the cops showed up, one squad car after another, and a couple of black guys in plainclothes with weapons on their hips, and the guy and his wife were inside the apartment building again by the time the first cops left their car.
It was quite a scene by then, with cops and onlookers milling around, and Shanta had heard the noise from the second floor of the next-door apartment where we were staying and had come down to make sure I was OK. The young man was doing alright—some scratches on his neck and his face was bruised, but he was tough and refused medical care. The woman was sobbing hard, saying she had lost her cellphone. Her cellphone was in her hand. Shanta, who was the only black person apart from the cops in this whole scene, touched her to get her attention and helped her see that she had her phone, and then she hugged her and the poor girl broke down in her arms for about a minute.
That’s pretty much the story—just an incident on New York streets, upper West side, a bunch of white folks standing around with their phones while the cops cleared the scene. Shanta was really angry at me for getting involved. I guess it is easy to get hurt in a scene like that, and I’m not that young anymore, but after we talked about it she saw my side, too. And it did make me wonder what we may be called to do in this new dispensation, where someone from out of town feels fine calling some nice college girl a chink, or what it means to be an American in the new world that has come to us like a sudden street fight. The world flipped upside down a few weeks ago, and all of us are living with what it means now. The question of how to confront violence is a difficult one, and we face a sort of violence now. I had my hands up when I faced that guy, and no intention to fight. I wondered afterward if I should learn how to fight.
Wake Up Call
I have been working on chapters of a book with my love—we are exchanging pieces and it’s called “The Courtship Dialogues.” I haven’t found time to get to my fourth chapter yet, however, because what happened in the past presidential election drove me crazy. I was also busy with doing grades and such at the end of the semester of courses I taught this fall. So I kept writing about the news—basically regurgitating it.
What does love mean, in a world like ours? We know what hate means, and anger. There is no lack of evidence. And fear, too—you can see it everywhere. And sorrow, of course. But what does love look like?
I really don’t know. I am thinking of King Lear—Cordelia, the purest emblem of love in all of English literature. Her father, the king, asks what she can say about the degree and depth to which she loves him. Nothing, my Lord, she says. She cannot heave her heart into her throat. And you know the rest of the story. All we have is words.
Keats said that beauty is truth, truth beauty. Synonyms. But it starts with truth—with speaking the truth, seeing it, letting it inhabit one’s being. William Blake wanted to build a ladder to the stars—and that ladder is worth the try, though it will always fall short. Anyone who tells you other than that is just funning you.
Lowell’s last injunction was framed as a question: “Why not just say what happened?” And Lear says to Cordelia: “I am but a poor sad man. If you have poison for me, I will drink it.” He wakes to his love of her, and sees how he has betrayed her. The muse. We are always betraying the muse, even though she lives inside us the same way we walk on the sacred earth of Gaia.
Why not just say what happened? The morning after the election, I received an email from a student who was distressed by the results. Neither he nor I had slept—we each had watched the returns all night and then watched Trump’s 4:00 AM speech. I was writing something that later got published here as a guest article, and he had sent me a poem. A man in his late 20s, black American and Latino, born and raised in the Bronx. It was a spoken word poem, filled with such anguish that it reminded me that if age has given me any good thing, it is to remind me of my role in the world. I answered him back—sent him part of what I had been working on. I just wanted him to know that I was still awake, too, and doing the same thing that he was—trying to make sense from disaster. I wanted him to know I was on his side.
Then just one other anecdote, and I promise I’ll finish. Another student, brilliant and quirky, took on the charge of writing the lead editorial for the student magazine I advise. He showed me drafts but I left him alone—didn’t give any feedback except to say “keep working.” In the end, he delivered the best piece of student journalism I have seen. He titled it “Wake Up Call.” His last paragraph is so good that I have to reprint it here:
“It is too early to say what will happen. Maybe nothing. Maybe Trump didn’t mean the things he said. Maybe the fascist movement dies out before they can do any damage. But no matter what happens, we must recognize that Trump is not a mistake. He is a symptom of America’s desperation for change, our susceptibility to the spectacle of might, and our willingness to look the other way and ignore unpleasant realities.”
That’s Matt Kalt. Students sometimes give small gifts at the end of a semester, and he left me a package in the business office. It was a book by his great-grandfather, Josef Hoffman, who was a journalist in Germany during period that spanned the Weimar Republic, the Nazi dictatorship, and the occupation. I haven’t had time to do more than glance through it yet. When I hold it in my hands it feels like a talisman.
The last words in the book are from an afterword, written by a colleague of his: “Josef Hoffman declined any kind of praise or exaltation of his character. His words – whether written or spoken—would speak for themselves….a man whose life was dedicated to telling the absolute truth.”
The idea of witness means a great deal to me. We all are witnesses, all the time. Sometimes all we have is words, frail reeds as they may be. Sometimes we have deeds. Keats said that truth is beauty, but he was still a young man, far younger than Lear. The equation does not quite satisfy me. Maybe it is an SAT question: Truth is to Beauty as Love is to… A. Hatred; B. Torment; C. Meaning; D. Homework. I chose C.
Brattleboro is a sort of sanctuary. I can ride around here in an old sort of ghetto-looking car with my partner and another black friend and not worry about being shot. Aleppo is a very far ways from here. So is DC. It is easy to be lulled. And outbursts of anger or diminishments of sorrow won’t get us far.
Every semester leaves me in spats of mourning, thinking of the students I won’t work with again. The end of any season. This was a rough term for most of them—who could have known that the news from the capitols of power would be so dark? But their hopefulness encourages me. There will be other elections and other seasons. This is not actually a love poem—I know quite well how to write love poems—but what I have written is about what we might possibly mean when we use the word love, and this also is the fourth chapter of “The Courtship Dialogues.”