Christina’s Date

by Philip J. Malebranche

The visit to Evergreens Cemetery, in Brooklyn, was impromptu.  I found that the J train was out of service at Sutphin Boulevard, in Jamaica, on Saturday morning, 15 October.  The lack of service was like an additional fling of a foreman’s whip against the helpless plantation worker.  The day before, my employer, at Advance Coatings Group, which had hired me to write about the decorative plaster from Japan, let me go, and someone seemed to believe that I should have trouble piled-on getting to New Jersey to visit my family.  I dodged the trauma of that setback by mentally bouncing-off it, like a running back off a tackle on the football field, and quickly deciding to find the bus that would take me to Brooklyn, where I often stop to run errands.  Leaving the subway station at Sutphin Boulevard, I walked to Jamaica Ave., where I waited for the Q56 bus to Broadway Junction.  At Broadway Junction, looking for the next bus to take to continue on toward Lower Manhattan, I knew that the Cemetery was nearby.  I’d been there before.  The drop-in center I was frequenting back in 2005, called The Gathering Place, was located not far, in East New York, and on that earlier occasion, I had chanced upon a tombstone that marked me, indelibly.  So, I postponed my commute and returned to the Cemetery, entered, and mounted the knoll to the gravesite that was nearby.

The stone was still there and was still guarded by a tree.  The flowers seemed to be a new addition, though, perhaps planted to mark an anniversary.  A small version of the Stars and Stripes stood, slightly faded, amid the two bouquets, making a proud and sad formation.  I approached and looked for the name that I’d almost forgotten.  The tombstone struck me emotionally that first time because there was only one date etched under the name, not two, as is usual.  The name read:  Christina Donovan Flannery.  The one date read like this:  9-11-2001.  Below that, it read:  “In Loving Memory.”  Evidently, Christina Flannery was a victim of the attack on the World Trade Center.  The first time I had entered the Cemetery, I saw that and wept for a long time, uncontrollably, and even retreated to a nearby gazebo to compose myself and then lyrics to a song to the woman who was a complete stranger to me.  My first encounter with her grave produced paroxysms of tears and a poem.  I had returned to the Cemetery to reflect and weep and pray.  The unknown woman had abruptly—and powerfully--entered my life.  She’s gone, but she hasn’t really gone away.

The lyrics had been a report, of sorts, to Christina.  I felt I knew something of the attack, a theory, and was writing to explicate it.  Now, I had another bit of news to deliver to her:  I’d lost my job.  If I were to write another song, I would have to update her on the sequel to the event that killed her.  My homelessness and sporadic employment is the same situation that afflicted me at the time of the initial visit.  This all was tied to what was going on in the press.  Even though I still breathe, which allows me to be able to visit this grave, I’m locked in perpetual poverty and housing instability.  The pattern over the years—even since I came upon this name, here--has been setbacks after success.  Professional advancement only goes so far.  And my adversaries admit as much:  my case worker at a Bronx shelter from which I’d been abruptly moved in December 2015, stated in a phone conversaton that I would be in and out of shelters, perpetually.  The context of his statement was slightly different, but I understood that the meaning was conveyed to inform me of adversarial intentions.

A positive turn of events was the referral to this Garment District firm, in Janurary 2015, by the staff of the SET Program, an employment program for the poor, of the City’s Human Resources Administration.  I seemed to be a fine candidate for success, given my education and skills—despite my lacunae that‘s a result of irregular work over many years.  However, my employer, who had promised to help me by hiring me, found rationales, now, to fault my output.  He deemed my prose to be inappropriate because it wasn’t marketing copy.  My caption entries for the Facebook page were too long and included too much of the history of Japan.  He derided me for trying to show-off what I knew:  in essence, he wanted me to reduce the quality of my work; but I had learned that the plaster about which I was writing has been an integral part of that country’s history.  Well-heeled and well-educated prospective customers should know how it was used in history in order to have an idea of the value it presents to him or her, today.  Writing for architects and designers, I felt that clients would be unafraid of text and reading relevant information.  They’d be willing to read longer entries on Facebook, I surmised, as long as it was well-written.  It also seemed incongruous to try to sell an elegant product to a fine clientele with inelegant writing.  With my sociology background, and untrained in marketing, I’d already judged marketing copy to be a threat to the language.  The rules of grammar are ignored.  The advertising industry—or a faction thereof--seems to have a mission to denigrate expression.  Complete sentences are increasingly uncommon; fragmented sentences are proliferating.  Punctuation is neglected or abused.  And, moreover, the effects are evident in journalistic reporting.

For example, one recent newspaper advertisement in the New York Times included this:  “Very Silver. Very available. Now yours.”  These are three incorrect sentences.  More such examples exist.

My sundry experiences, and being a foreign-language speaker, cause me to lament the debasement of language, and I have refused to let this affect my work as a writer.  My employer shunned my preference for proper sentences.  The matter deserves wider attention to raise these issues, and to highlight the sometimes abuse of the legal principle of “at will” in the workplace.  The business sector seems to claim a surfeit of privilege.  It seeks to accumulate every advantage vis-à-vis the worker.  Another possible issue, here, is the reliance on stereotypes and bias.  How could it be that someone on Public Assistance could make high-level decisions and contradict the president of the company?  I realize that another possible element of this situation is corruption.  The impediment placed before me is the latest incident among many previous hindrances that were redolent of poor ethics.

The omission of the date of birth on the Cemetery gravestone was a form of suggestion that the Japanese would appreciate.  I learned that, in Japanese aesthetics, suggestion provokes the onlooker’s imagination to complete an idea.  The appearance of but one date on the tombstone may have augmented the effect of the Christina’s death.  The extra mental work that came with realizing the missing date of birth seemed to add force to my reaction.  A quick search of her name on the Internet shows that she was indeed young, beautiful, gifted, admired and recently married.  She had been a star basketball player at Christ the King High School.  A photo of her from her wedding day brings me another bout with emotion.  Having made me cry, Christina Donavan Flannery is a part of my story, now, but I can yet report to her my liberation.