Friday, November 30, 2018

Being Poor (part 2: Mr. Darkside)

So besides the hippie-romantic/back-to-the-earth/recycle-everything/spartan-asceticism-contrarian/anti-bling version of poverty, there is the sticking, handicapping, cracked-heart variety where you must say no to your children, where you glance in posh bakery windows which might as well be Tiffany's, where you pass fast-food fried chicken outlets and the scent of cheap oil and breading intoxicates and you cannot participate in even a wing, because it will break the daily bank of your pocket.  Where you plot and plan and divide your dollars with economic razor-blades because you are smart and determined and physically capable, thank goodness, of fighting the good fight to survive in this city.  Where on your heart the word 'No' seems permanently incised because you cannot have anything you formerly craved or desired or even simply wanted, in a former life.

But I have been to countries where poverty is of another variety altogether-- where the unrelieved sting of need and want is like the constant corrosive pain of chronic hunger and mothers watch helplessly while their children suffer to death.  It has warped me, in a way, so that I can never quite indulge in the relative luxury of normal life without an underlying sense of guilt.   I never fail to appreciate simple comfort, and process Manhattan daily spending habits, for the most part, as excessive.   While it's true I can no longer sit in a cafe with a sandwich, I don't miss it often.  If someone else is buying I will generally decline the favor unless I have done something valuable in exchange.   If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would undoubtedly observe the same habitual economies that became a part of my survival as a single mother.

My son, on the other hand-- like a rapper or athlete who steps from low-income into a reality of wealth-- is indulgent.  I admire it, in a way... new-found money often brings with it a kind of entitlement or revenge-spending which is part of the process of becoming 'comfortable'.  For me, I cannot imagine how I managed to buy us a home, and maintain the basics in this culture where the golden ring is heavy and placed beyond arm's length for basic people.  It also seems absurd that the 'haves' these days-- the extreme 'haves'-- are receiving more than they will ever need, and have often done far less than in former times where hard work and invention was a slow and cumulative phenomenon.  And it doesn't seem all that difficult, as it was in my father's day, to become a self-made millionaire.  Athletes are paid massively; entrepreneurs can sell an idea overnight and buy themselves a small island.

I shop carefully, as I have said before, in the poorer markets of Harlem.  I consider myself relatively fortunate, having had the foresight to become a home-owner rather than a renter and like the ant and grasshopper story, this has paid off for us.  My life is simple and apparently spartan enough so that the city insists I receive foodstamps.  While I can't eat in restaurants, this allows a pretty generous monthly amount to stock the pantry.  My fellow shoppers do not watch the sales the way I do; they make unhealthy food choices and don't seem to worry.  Many of them are on welfare-- get cash for things,  live rent-free in city housing which is not luxurious but adequate.  Some of them have river views which would cost the rest of us at least $3000 on top of the monthly rent.  But what I have also observed,  from my tiny circumscribed life of personal urban stoicism, is the way that being poor leaves a lasting mark.

On street corners in Harlem there are habitual loiterers who panhandle and hustle year in and year out.  There is no future in this... but there is a present.  Being poor keeps people in the present.  They can't worry about what will happen, or their retirement or funeral expenses because they are dealing with NOW.  Maybe that's not such a bad thing.  You only need to visit  upper Central Park on the 4th of July and smell the barbecue and listen to the ringing laughter of Hispanic children enjoying the holiday while their wealthy counterparts in the Hamptons are often smug and cranky and disappointed or drunk and miserable.  The competition of rich people-- with themselves, with their colleagues, their neighbors, their own family-- is relentless; even leisure is a call-to-arms.

My beloved friend took me out to a 4-star restaurant... maybe THE 4-star restaurant.  The breadth of menu was not just daunting but dazzling.  Course after course was served-- with such artistry and exquisite execution I felt like crying.  Beyond awe-- I was enchanted-- touched by the wand of dream-royalty, fairy-tale dining.  I looked around... people were laughing, eating, talking-- just like this was a daily meal.  Personally, it was like a sacred experience... I could not even recall the sequence of edible treats like tiny artistic tableaus which blew out my visual expectation and challenged my palette.  I wanted to stop it all-- to say--- just this, or this... I'll have this next week--- to go-- a postponement.  I felt overwhelmed-- overindulged-- like having a bath in liquid gold when all you needed was to wash off.  It was more than I could process.  The check-- I could not process that either-- enough to feed a family of 4 for a year, in many countries.

Last night I came home after a rough day-- cold and tired and tried-- and I made myself a pot of cheap potatoes and chicken.  Total cost: maybe $1... and it was warm and comforting and I felt grateful and happy.  I remembered working in a homeless shelter on the Bowery-- was it guilt which compelled me to do these things?  Because I am in a sense among the voluntary poor.  I look ahead, worry about some future- cannot spend more than I actually require, and if I had some opportunity, I would undoubtedly give it away.  After all, isn't that what rich people do, theoretically-- give things away?  And poor people... the kind I shop among in Harlem-- they do not generally want what I have to offer; they want something else-- an expensive watch, a vacation-- fashion... things that will do them no good... but still they want them; they will buy them on credit if they must.

According to national income statistics, I am at base-poverty level... but I feel pretty 'sated'... so how can I be poor?  There's no magic formula between need and want; it is warped by experience, expectation, poor values, materialism, distorted economics... I pity my downstairs neighbors who have just renovated their bloated apartment and continue to receive masses of boxes from Restoration Hardware.  It's so meaningless and pathetic... being at the bottom of the 1 percent: the poor rich, while I am among the rich poor.  

The man who won the $300,000,000 in Harlem-- I wonder what he needs now.  Something money can't buy?  Less? I would not want to walk in his shoes,  nor trade tickets.  I wonder what the moment felt like-- when he went from poor to rich.  Whether that happened.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Being Poor (part 1: Mr. Brightside)

My alma mater is a highly endowed institution; the weekly alumni publication manages to find us no matter where we go, whether we subscribe or not.  We are all potential endowment contributors.  I personally gave as I could.  These days my level of contribution  is $10-20 at best, and even that is a stretch... I have several times joked with classmates, many of whom have illustrious careers and paths of success, that I single-handedly lower their average income by double-percentage points... so I was a little taken aback when my alumni magazine cover article was titled 'Being Poor'.  Of course they were not referring to 'us', but to 'them'.

I am considered by many of my friends to be eccentric; my life choices are difficult and not conventional.  I live by my art.  I am somewhat proud of this, and fierce about my refusal to give in.  I am a hold-out-- a relic of the old New York bohemian cliché.  I do not live in subsidized housing-- have managed to make my own way, somehow.  The frequent 'number-crunching' sessions which challenge me at 3 AM are not about growth and retirement issues, profit and loss, value and cost... but basic bottom-line life issues.  How to eat, maintain my 'roof' (i.e. apartment), and manage to pay basic telephone/internet/Con Ed.  Beyond this, I buy virtually nothing--- a few subway rides to gigs... taxis are not on my expense sheets-- nor are clothes or movies, cellphones, take-out, a slice of pizza.  Over the past years I learned to forego my old craving for New York City street pretzels.  They do not accept foodstamps which, now that I have stopped resisting this benefit, provide a much more generous nutritional budget than I ever allowed myself.

Certainly I am not complaining.  I used to remind my son, growing up, when he whined about being the only player on his team without Jordans...  we are RICH-- we just do not have money.   I believe this, somehow.  I also distinctly remember the irony of what I would tell my mother, when she asked what I would become when I grew up-- that I want to be POOR-- a slap in the face to her fierce bourgeois values and the covert shadow of bitterness she hid so well when my Dad's personal psychology warranted an economic downturn in our household.

Unlike my mother, I have pretty much always had control of my life.  I had the best education money can (cannot?) buy without spending much... all the opportunities anyone can want-- a chance at the Golden Ring, a taste of self-made wealth... and then the haunting ironies of the dream of music and art.  As  a single Mom who traded everything for sole custody, I found myself back in the city with nothing-- my hands, my brain, a newborn who needed little I could not biologically provide-- a 'roof'... and a daily challenge to somehow manage foraging enough to keep us going.  There were days I played in the subway, did bars for the bucket-- got just enough gigs to get by, many days, on a bag of yesterday's donuts.  I learned the meaning of 'no':  no luxuries, no restaurants, no non-essentials, etc.  I had feet... my main means of transport... I was young enough that people wanted to give us things.  There is a sort of barter system here-- even in the city.  You discover these things-- free clinics, donated food-- the things people no longer need-- one man's garbage, etc.  You become resourceful and make things out of nothing-- the beauty of music. Yes, I had a guitar... and then you create out of your dreams... you paint with words-- you become, in the motto of my neighbor who chalked this everywhere he could-- on sidewalks and trees and discarded appliances-- your dream.

My friends know my personal economics are beyond any normal concept of thrift. Since I haunt the bargain-corps of Harlem and uptown-- I know the price of everything, to a penny-- I walk among the poor, and I am pretty much accepted into their society.  It is a different kind of culture-- and admittedly there are those who abuse the system, rely on being given what they need, have a certain reverse-entitlement.  But there are also the 'finders', like me, who navigate and calculate.  I will walk a good mile to save cents on potatoes or vegetables.  Occasionally I look into a cafe-- see people enjoying a coffee and a bagel-- anything-- sushi-- and I envy... I mean, I could splurge just once-- but something else must suffer.  And what I do 'score' ... is processed like an unexpected floral delivery.  It's all a gift-- it's the B-side of 'nothing'... which is everything, in a way.

Not that I don't worry obsessively and wake in the middle of the night (or day-- because my nights are when I 'make' them-- when I have finished my poems or my gigs or my puttering around with books) regretting that I didn't marry that nice man with the Hamptons estate and the baseball team... panicking I will lose my head or my mobility and be taken from my home into the worst city-run nursing facility with no reading material and bad TV.

But yesterday I found a quarter on the curb... 11 cents further uptown, shining like a diamond on the sidewalk.  The Turkish man who sells slightly damaged vegetables cheap gifted me a lemon and some ginger.  I will manage my bargain turkey I carried all the way from Target and will eat with a few friends-- my son... all the trimmings, thanks to foodstamps which no longer make me feel guilty but rewarded, in a way... and I can share this bounty.  I find I have everything I have ever wanted-- and a little more-- I am spoiled, and privileged, and I am damned grateful for this life of mine.  My classmates often accuse me of conducting some kind of socio-personal experiment, of feeling morally superior because I don't need money.  Oh but I do get paid for things... and I work hard, I do.  We musicians can make $100 for a night's work and with a little mercy and smart-economics, I can parlay this into a little joy, which is more than I can say for a good sector of this city population who have organic meals and grain-fed turkey, salon-hair, silver service, football tickets, Amazon Prime, Apple stock and i-Phone-Xs, balcony-views of the parade... healthy children... and fail to look out of their own windows as they mouth their grace.

(to be continued)


Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Lady and the Tramp

I maintain my own private version of 'New Yorker of the Week' awards.  The designees get no public accolade or acknowledgment... just a silent heads-up from me...  some spare change occasionally, because most of my heroes are either under- or unpaid for their courage and humanity... but since I am a member of the economic underprivileged, I hesitate to insult them with my pathetic donations and instead offer a kind of prayer on their behalf... or literary-underground immortality in one of the poems I scatter like autumn leaves find their way to obscurity-- or maybe to some school-child's fall art-project where they will be briefly loved.  I can't help myself.

Last week's winner was a homeless man, sleeping temporarily on the steps of a church on Varick Street.  I would not have noticed him; it was late, it was beginning to rain…and the staggering numbers of men spending nights on the streets in the last few years has inured us all to the sidewalk population.  They seem to have food; their daily panhandling income, they tell me, averages somewhere between $50 and $150-- more than most real musicians I know earn for a gig.  They stay out of the shelters where their egos are filed and shaved down to a brand of humility that is more lethal than an overdose.  These places are dirty and dangerous.  Despite the rules and regulations,  possessions are not protected and sleepers are subject to violent attacks from other occupants who refuse to take their meds and experience psychotic and hostile episodes.

My man had risen around midnight-- relative calm on the streets-- to relieve himself… because as we all know, there are no public restrooms in the city after dark.  The homeless visit and even bathe in Grand Central, Port Authority, the various library branches, MacDonald's, those Starbucks stores which are kind enough to share their restroom combinations.  But at night-- well, even the parks are curfewed.  We have well-enforced dog-waste laws, but my son tells me in Soho and Tribeca there is so much human shit on the streets these days that business owners have had community meetings about this.  One store recently built an outdoor boxlike structure for advertisements and artistic displays.  Every day they had to shovel out the excrement and hose the receptacle down with disinfectant until they just gave up on the whole campaign.  Coming home at 2 and 3 AM, I have many times seen men defecating at either end of the subway platforms.

So my man squatted quietly at the edge of the steps,  and with his head bowed, stood carefully to clean himself with the pages of an old paperback novel.  I resisted the urge to see the title… but some passing young couples who witnessed his naked butt in the lamplight shadow-- well, they gasped and sniggered and pointed.  The thing was-- he was tall-- like a basketball player… and his sinewy legs and butt were so perfect and beautiful, and the grace of his rising, and even the way he pulled up his layered pants and fixed his clothing-- well, it took my breath away.  The sheer aesthetic reality of this man, trying to avoid falling into the cracks of the shelter treadmill, the humiliation and the consideration with which he waited until dark, until the traffic was moving, how he tried to avoid spectators… how his little pile of possessions was so neatly wrapped.  He was not that far from being a boy; I could imagine his mother, who loved him, or maybe failed to love him and care for him… the women he could have had, in another version of the story… an athlete-- a star… it broke my heart.

I got on the train, feeling helpless and almost guilty because I have a place to go back to-- a place to sleep and take a hot shower, where my books and my instruments, God-willing, are relatively safe and sheltered enough so I can leave them and go about my work.  Another disgraceful story on the discarded tabloids on the subway floor, with our orange-skinned Lego-President spouting more of his anti-humanitarian rhetoric.  He in his gilded rooms on Fifth Avenue, security alone costing more than the annual food budget of a small country… with his umpteen bathrooms and his tanning beds and hair-magicians… he couldn't survive a week in the wilderness.

Why is it we all pick up after our dogs-- we pamper and love them.. and have little compassion to adopt stray people… are disgusted and uncomfortable about their natural needs? Hunger is a force here… disparity is baffling, and for these fallen souls-- getting back onto the track is near-impossible in a city where so many of us are barely holding onto our homes, finding ourselves with a lower standard of living than we could ever have imagined.  I think of all those legends and fairy tales where the kings traded places with the paupers-- how it changed their worldview… what happened to this?  We are all counting our money here… me, and some of these homeless--- counting the change in our pockets to see if we can buy a slice or a coffee… and the Wall Streeters assessing the daily fluctuations in their portfolios-- pushing a button and making more money in a single trade than most of us will see in a lifetime… and they are happy to lend you credit, your friendly banker who pays you no interest-- for a mere 25-30%.  They bet on your failure to repay and they win big.

It makes no sense.  My version of this week's fairy tale has the winning Mega Millions ticket belonging to my man of Varick Street… although things don't work this way.  I do know the affliction of extreme poverty and homelessness is epidemic and chronic.  It leaves scars and residual symptoms for even those lucky few who manage some kind of recovery.  But most don't.  No sociologist or journalist or researcher into the phenomenon quite understands what it is like to be homeless and needy in a city like this, where you are chased from doorways and sidewalks of buildings filled with tenants paying $10,000  month for a few rooms… Lady, a local man begged me-- Can you let me in the gate?  He wanted to sleep in our trash alley where he will be locked safely against attack and theft.  I was reprimanded by my Coop Board for this nominal act of compassion in a neighborhood where a bakery now charges $10 for a doughnut and coffee.  Personally, I haven't bought myself a cup for years now.  Things are tight.  There but for fortune…. but that's another tale.

Today I remembered how my Mom once dressed me up as a 'tramp' on Halloween… at the time I had no clue what that meant, but I wore an old beat-up suit jacket and a bent hat and she smeared my face with coal like dirt.  I had a scarf-sack on a stick over my shoulder.  Everyone laughed and filled my sack with candy.  A man on the block told me about 'hobo' life; it seemed romantic.  I dreamed of runaway trains, of wandering, of campfires and hitchhiking…

Today I dream of a lottery for the poor-- where the billion dollar ticket gets divided among the homeless deprived angels of the street-- What was that old TV show… the Millionaire? The 21st century New York City update… that would be a reality show worth watching…  (to be continued…)


Tuesday, October 16, 2018

America the Reality Show

At some point during the summer, one of my friends asked me to blog for her while she went on vacation.  Apparently she is a paid 'tweeter' or commentator in various livestreams and publications for television, and apparently it is lucrative enough to allow her to have a holiday.  The catch? I had to binge-watch several shows so I could quip with credibility.

So the first assignment, and my 'audition', was The Bachelorette... regular network, fairly appalling, required reviewing a previous season of The Bachelor to get the backstory on the heroine who had been pretty well re-styled and made-over during the year, was admittedly all-American nice and gorgeous in a high-maintenance way, but likable.  I couldn't help inserting opinions on the pretty good-sized pool of racial diversity even though most of America knew she'd never cross-breed.  But what we were not prepared for was her choice of sub-par intellect, not to mention his bigoted, homophobic and misogynistic tendencies.  Is this the New America, the one that makes Kanye do the Presidential dance? My comments were disallowed.  Politics nixed.  Lovelier thoughts, my friend encouraged-- Keep it light... The only positive I could come up with was about her not-quite-as-attractive real-life (presumably) sister who was truly wife-worthy, loving and supportive, but this was not valid currency.

Next task: I binge-watched two entire seasons of Real Housewives of New York.  At least I could GPS locations... and one of my girlfriends had actually worked on some charity with Carole Radziwill... so I focused in on her.  At first she seemed relatively intelligent and independent-- dating a young chef, leading a life... but I watched her morph from a respectable, carefree woman into a botoxed, desperate fashion-hag-- a true mean-girl whose trajectory took her from top to bottom of the lady-heap.  Her clothing became ridiculous, her snide comments bitter and nasty, her constant style changes rivaled the Kardashians.  What could she have been thinking?  The reality show kiss-of-death for some who seem to compete with the kind of fierceness that eclipses character.  I sided with Bethenny-the-bitch whose real life tragedies won her the sympathy vote, and Carole fell both from grace and cast.  Good riddance... still no payment for all my television efforts, and an inability to separate Carole from my own real-life-nasty sister.

Oh, the fame-whores and phonies, the no-talent celebrities, the ass-kissing extras and free publicity opportunities.  Who are these women?  No one I would want to hang out with, except maybe Luanne-the-convict-version whose cabaret performance was entertaining in a horrific kind of way.  Some of my best friends have been in prison, rehab, various institutions...  almost relatable... but for the most part,  an entire mockery of my New York.  About as real as cartoon-Disneyworld, but not quite Thanksgiving float-worthy... Needless to say, my comments were undervalued.

But I'd been summer-bitten by the TV reality-bug.. and poor as I am, there were few evening options to distract me from the heat besides gigs.  I moved onto My 600-pound Life which is truly reality-worthy and eye-opening.  We in New York City rarely see this sector of population who are compensating for deep emotional wounds with food and essentially no more bloated than our local urban billionaires, just more honest.  Personally, I cannot fathom how they pay for all these meals; I can hardly afford restaurant or prepared food.  What I do know is the sin of gluttony seems far less heinous than the wanton greed of the 21st century corporate culture.  These people wear their weakness;  the Wall Streeters have personal trainers and plastic surgeons to keep them lean and mean while their investments balloon in 1200-ton portfolios.

Maybe the real reality show now is America... the Celebrity-Apprentice Presidential Candidate himself, with Kanye this week migrating from the Kardashian set to the Oval Office stage... flubbed his lines and embarrassed his audience but no apologies from the Trumpsters.  Protocol, ethics, intelligence, logic, respect-- all bets are off, all clarity is blurred and justice itself is on mock-trial.  Journalists and quipsters are hyper-provoked... pundits are ubiquitous and political cartoonists  hemorraghing material.  Endless dialogue and competitive commentary-- verbal bullying and misstatements are considerably more common than truth; little is unscripted except the pathetic presidential tweets...  and let's face it-- the viewer population is way more familiar with Bravo 'anti-stars' than political candidates.

In the end, I failed miserably as a TV tweeter... earned not even subway fare for all my viewing efforts, and feel a bit slimed, as though I skinny-dipped in contaminated surf.  If rap is the new poetry, 60 is the new 40, American politics is surely the new comedy... and I'm not sure where I belong.  It's like I'm looking at a chessboard with Monopoly game pieces.   Things are rigged and backward and ruined and even the weather for all our technology is less predictable than ever.   Everyone is a follower and no one is a clear leader.  I am betting that more people trick or treat than vote; however we celebrate Halloween, there seems nothing more horrifying than the Apprentice-president in the White House and his ghoulish team of clown-hearts with their golf-bags of tricks.
There are real tragedies, real victims of real disasters, real catastrophes and suffering.  Not reality shows but world events... not television entertainment but life.  May the better man, for God's sake, win.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Not Losing My Accent

Shortly after 9/11, in the storm of teenage hell, I wrote a novel.  I was aware that the city was morphing around me;  kids were bumping their heads not only on playroom ceilings, but on the new restrictions and security procedures that changed New York like a kind of bad facelift.  The short chapters captured a certain moment of LES nostalgia that was becoming fragile.  I got an immediate offer from a successful film producer… Get yourself an agent, he said-- I want this script.

So I got myself an agent.  She was experienced and reputable and famous; she loved the idea, the narrator, the project… but wanted me to develop the literary property before I sold it out.  Week after week, chapter after chapter.  At a certain moment, she called me.  I am worried, she said.  This is a compelling story (it was semi-autobiographical-- a single-Mom musician returning to the city from the UK, struggling to maintain her identity in the club-culture)… but the narrator is a teenage girl (true).  It straddles two categories, she observed.  I am very uncomfortable when things straddle two categories.  We are going to have to pick sides.

What? I said to myself and to her… It's a book… It's going to be a film… It's a story… What do you mean? But she was adamant.  Her industry, she explained, needs to know whether this is an adult or a young-adult product.  We need to know our market.  I looked on with horror as her editors deleted and chopped everything that was vaguely X or R-rated… down to PG and NPG and NFS and PDA… having decided the narrator's age was going to 'brand'.

The end product was a little like a deflated guitar.  It lost its bite, its charm, its soul.  I abandoned the dream of indie-film success and went back to songwriting and starving.  Teenage Hell.  Unsaleable poetry-- even the word terrifies agents-- especially mine.  Besides foundation grants and literary prizes which are generally doled out to those who already have lucrative teaching jobs and plenty of support, poetry is a non-existent economic entity.  Excluding Kardashian-quotes and viral facebook-memes, that is.

Two weeks ago on Primary Day, my best friend assumed I was voting for Cynthia Nixon.  In principle, I find her appealing… but the phrase my agent used appeared in the 8-ball window of my mind's eye like a word-flag.   Somehow I couldn't reconcile her political candidate-persona with the Sex in the City lawyer-image.  I wasn't sure which one was running-- my bad, I know… but she straddled two categories in my head, and I couldn't check the box.

Saturday night my blues band played a midtown club.  Ticket prices for a couple exceed what musicians like me receive for a usual gig.  We keep alive the traditions and music of Junior Wells, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Little Walter.  This was folk music-- of and for the people... juke-joint stuff, dive-bar fare.  We used to play small clubs on the lower east side for no cover charge.  Many of the original bluesmen sat in with us and gave us their nod.  I did my first gigs with Charles Otis... Bill Dicey... men that are long gone, but lived the poor-man's life.  We played for tips, mostly.  Occasionally real rock stars would stop by and want to sit in-- it reminded them of why they began to play.

I got home Saturday night to a slew of messages and apologies-- people who wanted to come-- some of them actually showed up-- but they couldn't afford the cover.  I happened to notice the only black person in the room was a friend of mine who works for a bank.  So what categories were we straddling?  Me, the artist-- I received a meal I could never afford to buy from a venue I could never afford to enter.  These days I'm lucky to manage subway fare home.  Not complaining-- just finding the irony here.

Outside of Fine Fare on upper Lenox around midnight is a man in a wheelchair who straddles categories.  He's partially blind and missing his legs.  He has a voice, though, and a good brain.  He is not afraid to ask for what he needs, and while I rarely have enough to buy him a sandwich, just bread is no good.  I have my food stamps card and am happy to get him an instant soup container which is allowable.  How he will get the boiling water is another issue, but we both know hot food is not a card option; it straddles another category.

Ironically, someone at my show had bought a Kindle copy of my old novel which was posted in some edited version by an eager friend who passed away before she had the chance to shop what she loved of the manuscript.  It now belongs to another generation of nostalgia; after all, the current culture seems to revere everything that reminds them of the disappearing East Village culture.  The old leather jackets and thrift-shop clothing have been canonized and relics of squatters and street pioneers and poets are behind glass in museums.

The literary commercial phenomena of the 2000's turned out to be the category-straddlers--- Twilight, Hunger Games, etc....  I've since learned that the tiny group of my book-readers are mostly adults-- men, even-- who loved the content and related to the teenage narrator who is the voice, not the author.  Was that not the point? I'm  sure my agent never ate her words, and I suspect she was glad to relieve herself of a badly-dressed client who spent more time in dive bars than she would have liked.  My novel is somewhat water under the bridge-- or is it?  I have crossed new boundaries of time and age, and straddle more categories than I ever imagined.  Cynthia Nixon lost the primary by a virtual landslide, but she still has plenty of money in the bank from her TV lawyer-role.  Maybe she should have changed her last name.  Personally, I am guilty or innocent as charged... I cannot and will not be other than who or what I am, categorically.


Saturday, September 8, 2018

#Chasing-the-Dollar

I had kind of a shitty day today.  Maybe it's just the September back-to-school seasonal dread... it persists well into adulthood where you are forced to acknowledge that mixed in with the old fall apprehension was a sprinkling of anticipation-- new people, new challenges, new teachers, new tasks.  Hope, I think it was called...  a little excitement-- an opportunity to use your new pens and notebooks-- a clean slate-- resolutions... and somehow always some new boy in your class you'd never noticed who gives you extra motivation to wear your new fall wardrobe.

At this point in my life, I've given up Halloween.  The natural indignities of aging are a sufficiently terrifying disguise; if I don't have a gig I quietly avoid my apartment-- leave the candy bowl by the door.  While I do enjoy seeing children in costumes wandering the streets,  I don't really need to supply my rich neighbors' kids with goods they're forced to discard or donate.  Let the homeless eat cake and sweets: God's Love We Trick-or-Treat.

I divide my girlfriends into two groups these days: the go-getters who travel and eat out and socialize and jump around at the gym... and the ones who isolate and sit home passively waiting for old age to seep in like slow-rising floodwater.  The former group-- they go to meet-ups and class reunions because they have never been thinner, or richer, or more (or less) single; they wear make-up to the grocery store and subscribe to dating sites.  The latter have stopped trying to look seductive; many of them were formerly beautiful and have nothing to prove.  They had some richness in their life (or not) and no longer want to advertise.  Both groups have used or use drugs-- recreational or prescription-- Group 2 with limited benefits.

One thing they have in common with my male friends seems to be Facebook.  Group 1 posts meals and travel-logs and happy group-shots of family and friends celebrating.  They use emojis and abuse exclamation points. The latter group members comment and 'like' passively;  they look forward all week to Throwback Thursdays,  spend way too much time on the Manhattan-Before-1990's page, and observe all new deaths with personal mourning posts.  For the Goth sympathizers, the Plath-ites and Genet-lovers, grief is a comfort zone.  We are in our shadow-years... and yet all of us are shocked by deaths among our peers.  There is an epidemic of disease-chronicles, treatment logs and Go-Fund-Mes because baby boomers often failed to heed the ubiquitous and ancient warning that youth is not forever.  Many abused their bodies and failed to squirrel away money for a rainy sick day.  So they post... they confess... they cry publicly... and we look and sympathize and occasionally help.

Both groups are political pundits and animal aficionados, chronic chronologists and nostalgia nurds.  Within categories they find sympathizers and like-minds; they join pages and compare breeds, refer and recommend books, art and music. And they lie.  The first group maybe more than the second-- they lie to themselves and they lie to us.  They photoshop and post old pictures as new; they 'like' things they don't like, out of reciprocal courtesy.  Some of them post happy pictures of themselves with children who have not spoken to them in years.  They pass away-- some from sudden accidents or medical anomalies, some from chronic disease they did not disclose, some from the illness described in great detail in posts-- and some-- just suddenly-- suicide, hours after a non-loaded comment or observation, a wonderful meal-- an event.  Their friends are horrified-- that is, their Facebook friends.  Their real friends-- well, where were they?  Watching their page as though it was life, failing to read between lines (i.e., posts)...  and how much time is left, after our social media binges... to listen to friends, to reach out?

Part of what disturbed me today is the fact that despite all the public presence we have, there is a huge lack of truth-telling and genuine, soul-to-soul communication.  I was horrified by a friend's failure to disclose things which are very pertinent and shocking, in a way.  And I was provoked into providing an opinion by a couple who visited me-- throwing out queries and remarks, and expecting facebook-style comments rather than a conclusive, solid discussion.  I let them have it, my dose of reality... and I suspect I will not see them again soon.  Do I feel badly?  I do.

One trend that bothers me is the exchange of money on facebook-- the Go-Fund-Mes, the campaigns and gifts-- the charity birthday apps which are admirable... but how many of us pledge before a cyber audience, to emoji  accolades, and fail to 'see' our unfortunate neighbors and homeless who lack the organization to even ask... or who ask and ask and are chained to the poverty treadmill of hopelessness?

Today on the way to my afternoon job, a dollar bill literally floated by my head in a small wind, like a cartoon. I ran after it; like a playful child or a bird, it would land and then take-off again, flapping and cartwheeling in the cool air current.  I persisted, to the entertainment of pedestrians until I captured it under my shoe.  I waved it in the air... no takers... well, I guess I'd earned it.  Not my dollar, I wanted to announce... Not my president-- 'Not the planet I signed up for', my bandmate says at least five times daily.  But I pocketed it anyway, knowing-- not unlike the moments and events on our timeline, it would be spent and re-spent... given away or received... valued and appreciated or misused and wasted... but would not remain for long.    



Friday, August 31, 2018

All the rest have 31.....

The cusp of August is the cruelest of all... after all those days of long, lingering heat and humidity-- of pink sunsets and procrastinations... September is staring me in the face like a damned balance sheet.  It's been a year now that my Mom is gone;  I stood over her grave last week-- listened for her shadow... praying that old family feuds would allow my stonecutter's dream to mark her peace... I sang her little song ... If ever I would leave you...it wouldn't be in summer... but it was.

The year I was born saw the hottest streak of the century.  We toughed it out in those pre-air-conditioned days at the beach at Belle Harbor, or the city river boardwalks... I swear I remember the heat of my stuffed crib-reindeer, his wilted felt lashes fluttering in the fan-wind, the buzz of flies and mosquitoes outside the apartment screens whining to come in and sample the sweet room-babies... Perry Como on the radio...  It set a bar for high temperatures; I've never really minded the heat since then-- well, maybe one year, with a cast on my leg, I struggled through, sitting under the apple tree, distracted by my new discovery of language and books; my mother made frozen lemonade and taught me to sing Que sera, sera...

In 1969 I spent the month in Mexico where it seemed a daily rainstorm relieved baking afternoons, and neighborhood boys brought guitars and played 'Yo sin ti'  over and over.  We hitchhiked to the city where I locked myself in a record-store booth with 'Tommy' and realized how homesick I was for rock and roll.  See Me... Feel Me... it was like a shiver.

Another summer I danced at a festival-- eight grueling hours of practice and technique in hot studios and gymnasiums..  I'd lean on the sill of my tiny Connecticut room at 2 AM and hear the same loon moaning.  Weekends I rode bone-tired on the back of a vintage BMW motorcycle between New London and the city, clinging to the hot leather back of a budding rock-God, hearing the young Van Morrison in my head and watching the road for a Dairy Queen.

A few years later, I had the first taste of The Dark Side of the Moon sitting outside a hunting lodge in the hills of Northern Italy with a bunch of British hippies and piles of drugs... thinking through a fog of smoke and Valpolicella how the word august meant celebrated and auspicious from the Latin... we were high and dry and often naked and the world spread beneath us like a vineyard... the days baked on, Money was a song... it seemed the summer never ended until one day we woke up happily back in our dormitory.

Lately the summer funerals have draped the dog days with mourning.  On 103rd Street there is a new shrine to another young neighborhood casualty.  Papi, the messages spell out in tears.. rows and rows of candle-glasses and stuffed animals for Di-Quai who was just 19.  This, too, shall pass.  Already in the 104th-Street playground there is a barbecue with yellow balloons.  Someone has brought a light... the boombox blasts No Tears Left to Cry and then Diamonds by the Boatload... they are done with Aretha-- that was last week's old-school.   And Saturday's perfect cupcake-top moon... the iced vanilla round,  pearl of my heart...   is now a lemon slice in the sky to these sun-baked eyes tonight.

No matter how rough it gets, we gonna go 31 this month.  It seems unfair that they are unequal, that September 'hath' 30,  and February we all pay for an extra two days of cable we don't get.  But August... it held out its hot breath until Aretha, John McCain, Di Quai and a host of others realized they would not see the changing of the leaves.  Where do they go, I wonder... sitting by my mother's burial site with my ear to the ground, feeling the afternoon warmth in the grass, trying to fight the terrible urge to dig through the soft earth and see what is left of her-- just once more... like an Edgar Allen Poe poem.  Forgive me, Mom.  For not cremating you, for failing, for your missing epitaph.

On the way back down Madison tonight, I passed that big black hospital; outside, a few men in wheelchairs were taking in the night air, smoking forbidden cigarettes and comparing bandaged legs in various phases of amputation, whistling at the young nurses.  Where are their mothers, wives, children?  I wonder if they miss the old summer songs the way I do.  They don't seem nearly as miserable as some of my neighbors here in the building-- with their renovations and their botox and their summer hair treatments.  My Van Morrison is old and heavy,  Elvis is long gone.... my lovely Mom who mourned Perry Como and Frank Sinatra with true grief barely had a voice when she lay down for the last time.  I wonder who she dreamed of, who she took with her that last trip... I hope Di Quai had time to make a wish.  Happy Birthday, Papi... whenever it will be... 31 candles I've blown out now... I don't know what song you'd like to hear, but I'm sure someone does... For now I'll just whistle like an old train and greet the September morning with courage.