Diabetes and Diphtheria

John Neil Jensen was born in Oneonta in Upstate New York in late summer, 1924, about a year after his sister Helen was born. A fire destroyed the family dairy when Johnny was still an infant, Helen a toddler. The Jensens returned to New York City where John Sr. got work driving a horse-drawn milk buggy and Jennie managed the tenement in Greenwich Village where the family resided.

John Sr. was working his way up at the dairy, and he was looking at a promotion to foreman when diabetes struck him down. It was at about that time that diphtheria struck the neighborhood and nearly killed the Jensen boy. Though Johnny—just three years of age—survived, his vision was severely damaged. He could only see blurs within about a foot of his face. Helen fared better, but without a breadwinner, the welfare agency threatened to take Johnny and Helen from their parents. Fortunately a Jewish family in the tenement covered for the Jensens until Mr. Jensen could recover and find a job. It appears that he was still recovering when the market crashed in October, 1929.

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Love on Times Square

Word has it my paternal grandparents met on Times Square on New Year’s Eve, 1922. They met, more precisely, at the Hotel Astor. John Jensen, a Danish immigrant, was likely working as a milkman. Jennie MacNeil, a Scotch-Canadian immigrant, may have been working in the hotel, perhaps in housekeeping.

Jensen was a real bastard, that is to say, born out of wedlock to two house servants. He’d been christened Rasmus Marius Jensen. His mother, Jensine Rasmussen, was unable to raise him but kept in touch with him throughout her life. The father, Niels Johan Jensen, had fled the scene when Rasmus was an infant and immigrated to New York. It’s said that the boy operated a farm on his own by age 12, and a dozen years later, during World War I, moved to America, changed his name, and met up with his dad in New York. He worked as a gardener, an estate caretaker, a streetcar driver, and a milkman.

Jane “Jennie” MacNeil had been born and raised on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. The village where she was born had retained much of its Hebridean culture, right down to speaking and singing in Gaelic and practicing strict Roman Catholicism. The village has since been transformed into Nova Scotia Highland Village, a major cultural center. Jennie left Canada for New York in her late teens. She was something of a rebel, excommunicated by the Church at some point for fraternizing with Protestants. The Church eventually reinstated her.

John and Jennie married, bought a dairy farm upstate—near Oneonta, and had two children, a girl they named Helen and a boy they named John. Tragically, they lost the farm to a fire. After the fire, they returned to New York City and moved into a tenement in Greenwich Village, where more hardship would follow.

The Bull of 23rd Street

One evening in the heart of Manhattan’s Chelsea district, a pair of young sailors are letting loose—exceedingly loose. They come across another young man at an intersection. He’s touching a light post timidly as if caressing it, and this catches the eye of one of the drunken mariners. The sailor, offended by the stranger’s gesture and spurred on by “the spirit,” reaches out to grab the stranger’s shoulder without notice, and the man turns quick as a cat, slipping a hand under the sailor’s arm and up behind his head. The force of the move pushes the sailor into his buddy who falls back and down to the concrete. As the stranger follows through, he throws the first sailor down to the ground. The stranger pauses for a second as if listening. He doesn’t seem to see the sailors, though he certainly knows where they are. His face has that vacant, blind-man look, but he has no cane. He has no dog. He has no escort. He turns to cross the street. A taxi honks as the young man crosses the twin beams of its headlights. The sailors look at each other, and they clumsily regain their feet. Now they’re stunned as well as buzzed, not knowing they’ve just stumbled across one of the premiere wrestlers in the Empire State, heading home to Mount Kisco for the weekend after working out at the 23rd Street Y. Some call him Jensen. Some call him Johnny, or J.J., the Bull, or occasionally King Kong. They don’t call him Daredevil. This isn’t a comic book.

New York City

Our daughter Brenna has the honor of participating in a summer intensive on Broadway with the American Ballet Theater, and I have the honor of visiting her there. After joining my cousin Holly and her husband Rick for a Grateful Dead concert, I’ll get a week in the Big Apple to visit Brenna, explore places where my dad lived, and also work—as my employer (Yahoo) has an office on Times Square (in the old NY Times Building).

The Last Gypsy of the Brennica

Here, young stranger, a speckled egg
of Carpathian granite, blooming with crystal,
stolen in my youth from the womb
of a Moldavian stream, said the old Gypsy
when he handed the riverstone to me.

Mill it—down to flour.
Fertilize it with this old man’s ash,
carry the meal up to Ram Mountain
and cast it out there. Like the Roma,
let the rain wash it to the Odra and the Wisła,
let that blend of stone and man
leaven the two waters
with the ashes of my love
and the soul of my mountains.

Let it ride the Wisła east, the Odra west,
Down through Silesia, past Krakow’s poet-tomb;
May it seal the wounds of my people,
Prussian and Pole, Czech and Jew—
children of the two veins together;
our dark blood never spill again
even to where the twin rivers spill
upon the northern sea.

© 2015 Kaweah

Jeffers in Big Sur

Some time back, Jean Widaman of the Tor House Foundation was organizing an outdoor event at the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur, and she invited me—of all people—to contribute, so I committed several topical poems to memory for the May 17 event. I’d already had “Boats in a Fog,” “Night,” and others in my repertoire, but this was my first Big Sur event. Though things ran behind and I ran a bit slow and so wasn’t able to complete my segment, it went very well. I really got into the poems, and I felt as though I was nearly making love to the microphone (orally, of course). Jean had me repeat “Boats in a Fog,” I suppose as a sort of encore? I received a lot of good feedback. I even made a connection with a composer that might somehow score me a gig with the Monterey Symphony (as a narrator?)—welcome flattery for a quivering introvert like yours truly.

Hotel Jericho

Old Jacksonboro Road crosses the Savannah Highway within a half hour of Charleston. The junction has a name: Jericho. Today it is considered part of the town of Adams Run (as though you know where that is).

The Notre Maison Boys Home

The Notre Maison Boys Home
Source: Rebecca Reconnu Biggs Grainger

 

As far as I know, Jericho was once the site of a hotel, a store with gas pumps named Caison’s Groceries, and a school annex for Coloreds. The store had a post office inside. Mom and Dad bought the old hotel in 1970, when we returned to South Carolina. I was just 5. We didn’t stay there long. Sometime after we left South Carolina again in 1972, it all burned down in a couple of fires (I have an alibi: I was out of state).

The hotel had three stories, if one counts the spacious attic with dormer windows and and old four-legged bathtub. It had exterior wooden stairways which functioned as fire escapes. It had ten bedrooms and four bathrooms. When we moved in, one of the bedrooms had a sagging floor. The bathrooms were equipped with showers, but none of them functioned. We all had to bathe in my sister Duska’s bedroom (the attic).

About six years before, the house had been converted to a boys’ home by David A Reconnu and his wife Helen. They operated the boys’ home for about four years.

NotreMaisonBoysHome1

Source: Thomas C. Hucks

The adjacent store (peeking through on the right edge of the above photo) came equipped with a soda vending machine that would allow a mischievous boy to yank a bottle out without paying. The trick to it was not to brag about snagging a free soda to one’s mom.

When Mom and Dad first found out about the hotel in Spring 1970, they saw it as a place that might serve well as a home for seven and a dog, a chiropractic office, and a Bahá’í center. I must confess that if I were driving down the Savannah Highway and I saw a FOR SALE sign posted in front of that old hotel, I would have been sorely tempted to stop for a look-see.

It seems they bought the house sight-unseen. When they actually laid eyes upon it, it was pretty badly trashed, featuring a trash pile in the front.

Among my favorite memories of Jericho was the the trash pile in the back, all blackened from the last fire and wet from the last rain. I can still smell the aroma of molten plastics, rotting food, and rusted scrap metal. I also remember when a crab, recently taken from the ocean, got a hold of a cat’s tail. I’m not sure how that happened, but now I suspect it probably got some help from a teenage boy.

Across the highway, there was a hotel of a different kind that was even more noteworthy: a maze of tunnels that some neighbor kids had dug out. My memory of that system of tunnels has endured in my mind as one of the great achievements of kidkind.

It turned out the Hotel Jericho had too many maintenance and repair issues, and it wasn’t easy to unload. Mom and Dad weren’t able to sell it for a year or two after we left Jericho.

Jericho School Annex for Coloreds
Jericho School Annex for Coloreds.

 

Epilogue

It turned out that the property was in worse shape than we’d thought. All the while we lived there, and for years before and after, going back to before the boys’ home, there had been a fertilizer plant operating behind the house, contaminating the soil and the groundwater. The area, including the site of the house, was later declared a superfund site. One of the companies that did the damage, Kerr-McGee, was infamously featured in the Karen Silkwood story. The sign of the company that ran the plant later still stands by the highway. Apparently, the fertilizer plant had been exporting fertilizer laced with quite a variety of toxic chemicals.

Links

Rochester Post-Bulletin: Companies indicted after lead, cadmium found in fertilizer

NY Times: 7 FACE U.S. CHARGES IN A WASTE SCHEME

The Charleston Post & Courier: Pact would clean up toxic Stoller Site

© 2006, 2013, 2015 Dan J. Jensen

Evergreen Lodge Cycling Trip

Cycling, El Capitan

Cycling, El Capitan

Mike and I visited the very pleasant and well-equipped Evergreen Lodge for our Spring Break 2015 outing. I was in the midst of a month off between stints at eBay and Yahoo. Mike and I were fortunate to get a modest, affordable cabin right next to the camp zip line, and even better, we were blessed with a dusting of snow. We had a great time bicycling around the area, witnessing the devastation from the previous summer’s Rim Fire, and we had an even better time bicycling around Yosemite Valley.

©2015 Kaweah

The Peace-Loving Elements

The cataract grinds away the granite
But water only wants to find a low place
And take the form of its container,
Conform to make its peace.

Earth falls too—
Crashes down on itself
Till the land is level,
At peace.

The wind blows savage over the plain,
Falls from ridge to trough and
The gradient is lost. No high, no low,
No sound but peace.

Fire comes, hungry,
willful, wild;
Thaws frozen seas, steams
Oceans and the rains fall, turns
Air against air and the winds sing;
Heaves continents, piles mountains up,
Sends the peace-loving elements off
to war.

© 2013-14 Kaweah