Monday, October 19, 2020

Blue Ink

 Over the weekend I was touched by the obituary of a type-face designer who passed away.  His fonts and graphic 'eye' are well integrated in our every-day visuals.  The musical metaphors he offered, the way letters and printed words 'speak' to some of us... these people are part of media obsolescence.  I find myself mourning the disappearance of them as though they are family.  They are part of the soul and material of my life.  I miss them; I miss the reality to which they belonged-- the priorities and signposts. “The most beautiful thing in the world,” the Times quoted him as saying,“is a blank piece of paper.”


My neighbor is a well-known older writer.  When we met, years ago, he exclusively worked on an odd and dated version of a dedicated word processing machine.  One night he called me-- panicky-- because it was malfunctioning and any self-respecting computer repair man declined to service this.  I offered him my 'transition' typewriter-- the kind that memorized a line at a time and then printed it out on a page via plastic ribbon.  I held onto these things as souvenirs, and for just such literary emergencies.  It distracted him, but it was wrong.  Ebay, I suggested... and sure enough he was able to find a replacement.  

Meanwhile, I remember thinking how far I'd come-- writing my first novel in Word Perfect, on a Dell PC I'd been gifted, to replace my used  8 MHz IBM PS  which prompted me to install DOS by floppy disk every time I turned the machine on.  From my first ancient Royal on which I'd typed my Princeton thesis (with carbons), to an electric Smith Corona, and onward.  My friends know I'm still using a telephone land-line; I've resisted change/technology along the way.   I am uncomfortable with these systems that seem to accelerate my process until I don't recognize myself.  I need the heartbeat and material of sentence-building, of story-telling.  

The cross-outs and inserts of manuscript writing are part and parcel of understanding a writer's process.  Songwriters, poets... their doodles and marginalia enhance value-- provide clues to the creative path, to private distractions and passions--  a bit of humor.  In the late sixties when I applied to college the applications were hand-written.   On one of them, instead of attaching the passport-sized photo requested, I asked one of my friends to draw me.  I maneuvered questions and embellished things-- gave them what they didn't ask but maybe wanted.  Today the 'common' app most universities use are just that; they leave little room for variety or humor.  My little portrait would have been missed by any computer.  

I wake during the night and scrawl lyrics on paper scraps-- have a supply of writing utensils among piles of books on my nightstand.  Far beyond recalling inspiration now, I still shun middle-of-the-night technology, as though the bright blue light threatens poetry.  Last night I thought about summer camp.  I hated being sent away and from the age of eight spent a full two months in a cabin full of girls with no privacy.  Besides my rag doll, I brought a small stack of paperback books my Mom approved, and a white pad of stationary paper with a blue ball-point pen.  It was the first time I was allowed to use ink.  I can still remember the way it glided along the paper, the sweetish candy smell of the ink, and the halo of my flashlight underneath the covers.  It was during those nights that I think I became a writer.

In this era of backlit news, texts and emails which spread or shrink across screens, I still take my coffee black and my reading material in print, bound and paged.  The way the words flow in linear formations-- the serifs and italics, dots and lines-- these are essential.  They comfort me when I am sleepless, sing to me when I am alone.  The hours and nights of this pandemic have run one into another-- my solitude provides little punctuation, but the near-endless supply of well-written sentences in my old books, the familiar patterns of verse and chorus-- have provided some comfort, like the homesick summer nights of white paper and blue ink.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Guitar Grievance

 At the age of three, my son had his very first 'away' playdate.  When I came to collect him, his friend's mother told me on arrival he'd gone from room to room opening closets, peeking under beds.  It was relentless.  She overheard her little boy ask him what he was doing and he replied 'I'm looking for your Mom's guitars.'  Apparently he assumed part of motherhood meant being a musician.  

During this pandemic I've watched more television than usual.  The quarantine has forced even our basic newscasters to provide a glimpse into their domestic environments.  Some are obviously fortunate, with rich decor and furnishings-- grand rooms behind them.  Others are more discreet, and appear in a limited space behind a desk, casually dressed, in front of a lamp-- family photographs in frames, and always the bookshelves.  Journalists have historic books-- world affairs, biographies; the entertainers and emcees have variety-- novels, popular trade books, art monographs, atlases.  Some are arranged so that they look 'provided'.  Others, like Judy Woodruff's, seem authentic and comfortably spine-worn.  

A large number of home 'sets' include a guitar.  Being the musician, I've often strained and squinted to decipher the brand or model.  Usually the instruments are background... but for some, like on Conan's show, they are prominently displayed and there are more than one.  I've actually met Conan at gigs, maybe 25 years ago... he'd always been attracted to music, played a little guitar.  We need to know this.  Apparently the presence of a guitar, like household pets, has a message-- conveys artistic bent, sensitivity? A 'player' (lol)? Coolness?  Who knows?  Like my young son, it may be just an assumption-- a household necessity-- like a blender or an iron-- something your Mom and her friends passed around at night... or the thing she took into the closet at 3 AM so she wouldn't wake the kids.  Most of the headstocks were labelled with the same initial as your name, so they felt familial-- branded.  They belonged.

Unlike many musicians, all of my guitars (and pets) have in a way 'found' me.  They are like stray dogs that somehow crossed my path, and came home to live with me.  I have fallen in love with each one-- their quirks and flaws, their unique beauty and voice.  My very first 'real' bass was initially a listing in Buylines-- the free newspaper we all used to seek out instruments in pre-internet days.  This was our Craigslist, the local 'hub' for trading equipment.  I took two trains and a bus out to some address in Jamaica where an old Fender Precision in a broken-handled case waited for me.  Its owner had long disheveled hair, arthritis... maybe a career once in local bands-- I didn't ask. The place smelled musty-- it was dark.  I'll take it, I said, without playing it, without holding it... the price was exactly what I had in my pocket-- $300.  When I got home, my rocker roommate was in a state of shock that I'd hit some pre-CBS jackpot.  That guitar served me for years; it mostly resides in a case these days; it seems pretentious to carry around a bass with its monetary value... I miss playing it.  I look at old photos and remember the way I felt.  

When my 'solo' guitar self-destructed two weeks ago, I panicked.  Here was another ill-fitting anomaly-- not 'me' at all, but somehow with its defects and flaws, I'd made it work.  It was my companion.  Yes, my 12-string weird tuning put unnecessary stress on the bridge but it had never seemed to complain.  Until it did.  Even its maker shook their head at the photos and told me to bury it.  Sell the parts.  

In a pandemic, random fated meetings are near-impossible.  I spent nights combing the internet for affordable options. Of course I have access to the wonderful collections of my friends, but I need to have my own funky instrument.  I need to be able to bond unequivocally and not worry about accidents or mishaps.  So with my tail between my legs I walked down to Guitar Center which was quieter than in former days... and lined with hundreds of the guitars we see and don't see hanging from TV walls-- primped and leaning in stands.  The first night I played a range of 12-strings-- from $4,000 down to $200... walked home and vowed I'd find a repair person brave enough to fix my old wreck.  

Five days passed-- I borrowed a guitar just to keep my fingers alive, and I got the courage to return to the store.  This time, one (a cheap one) seemed to remember me-- it had retained the tuning I tried out-- it had a small crack in the neck-finish which merited a price reduction.  It was the only one available.  I also had a gift card from judging a King of the Blues contest.  I so rarely buy things, the card was unused.  Again I went home, thought about the cracked guitar, considered the cons, the responsibility of actually buying a new instrument.  Nothing new about me these days.  Another two days passed, and I looked at internet photos. tried to crush on the guitar a little... gave myself lectures on moving on in life-- of leaving things behind, peeling away old layers.  A TCM movie synchronicitously had the guitar brandname in its title-- that perked my soul a little... I began to speculate that if someone bought that guitar I'd feel hurt.  So I went down a third time--- there it was.. it seemed to greet me... still in my tuning.  I bought it, carried it home with that feeling I had as a child when I'd take a few months' worth of allowance to the toy store on my bicycle and picked something. 

It's not 'everything' but it's something.  It's a lesson-- an adjustment.  The two of us are an odd couple.  It's loud, it's bright... it's black and so new.  It's a blank canvas, for sure... but I'm trying to make it welcome.  I'm going to sell the parts of my old one-- I won't insult it by trying to plastic-surgery it into some guitar hell, but maybe the parts will live on in some songwriter's hand.  It served me well and reminds me about life-- even inanimate things have a kind of death and we can't bury ourselves with our own past.  We have to keep going.  I feel certain one day my new guitar will gently weep for me, but hopefully I'll have done it a bit of justice by then.  

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Wednesday, September 16, 2020


The first slight chill of September is a grim reminder of not just time but his designated reaper.  This summer's diminished celebrations have highlighted the significance of our mortality... of the way things wind down, segue casually into a sequence... or, more rarely-- simply die.  That 2020 may be remembered as the year with no summer, for some of us, is for our future perfect to determine.  

Death after death has been logged, like a thick-knotted rope we blindly grope in an unfamiliar, unlit present.  We are sad-- we are repressed, we are uncharacteristically grateful for small privileges as they are gradually restored... but like a hurricane aftermath, we have not yet surveyed the damaged human landscape.  

Meanwhile we have the fires burning in the West, reminding us that nature is not done with us-- that vaccine or none, there are larger battles in store-- there is perhaps life on Venus, economic disaster for any one of a number of countries... there is still a looming and impressive death toll to digest.  No wonder people demonstrate; fear fuels anger... we are leaderless, disunited, confused and betrayed.  We are the victims of emotional recession.

Tonight I re-watched The Virgin Suicides.  With the added distance of age (the parental Lisbons are a generation younger than I am now), it all seemed both more and less poignant.  The concept of innocence-- especially for those of us who were born in the 50's-- is complex and rooted.  Whether we were raised in a protective, sheltered home or somehow damaged and violated, all women seem to have a mothery response to teenage girls.  As some of us know, they can also be evil and manipulative-- but even in the darkest Lolitas, there remains a 'band' of white.  They get a reduced sentence.  

One of the noted ironies of this film tonight was the quarantine-- which unlike our pandemic culture only served to encourage the so-called malignancy it was meant to prevent.  Teenage suicide is especially tragic because real-life seems so vast and irrelevant outside the small passionate priorities of youth.  I remember my older sister once swallowed a bottle of aspirin because she was docked from some unremarkable party.  At the hospital she confessed she'd only actually eaten seven and they were baby aspirin because she was more terrified of the stomach-pumping apparatus.  In the end it was a worthless exercise and she'd played the death card badly.

The other theme that struck me was the longing-- that hypnotic, all-consuming 'drug' we really only experience from the entry points of love-- the fantastic, elaborate, drawn out sense of endless waiting to consummate or even touch the object of our desire (which can change in a teenage heartbeat).  Halfway through the film, at the bottom of the screen a message floated by informing me, among other bits of news, that Cardi B had filed for divorce citing 'trust issues'. Well... times have certainly changed from nights of holding a telephone receiver over a turntable playing early Todd Rundgren to the instantaneous and public posts of social media.  In the current MO of relationships, those weighted endless hours of courtship have eloped; time snaps back like an elastic weapon in your face.  

I don't know what teenagers hold onto these days... romance has had its wings clipped-- or maybe the quarantine, like the Lisbon sisters, has only stirred the fires of love and creativity.  I have heard all too many stories of death these months-- painful for those of us who stand helplessly on these quiet sidelines, but also somehow comprehensible in this world of 'less-than'.  I look back on my girlhood; as a high school senior I had a brief romance with a handsome young teacher who was installed as a 'draft dodger' .  He let it be known he was interested and as inappropriate and taboo as it was, it superseded any romantic fantasies of my 17th year.  I was fortunate; he treated me with utmost respect and kindness.  We drove off in his Renault to a studio apartment on West End Avenue where he taught me things I had not known, but never violated my 'innocence'.  It was 'everything'.  He even introduced me to Dustin Hoffman.  

My high school romance became a lifelong friendship... we went our separate appropriate ways and I always considered this experience more than first love... During the pandemic I learned he'd passed away, and with it a small chunk of my past buried itself.  For those of us who do not attend funerals or post on social media or weep publicly, these things have taken a toll.  For teenagers, reading about death statistics daily, masking their young mouths and maintaining an amount of sterility-- well, it seems like some kind of deprivation--  the year with no 'teenage'.  It seemed fitting tonight that The Virgin Suicides paid a kind of tribute to the pain and loss suffered by even the 'privileged perfect'.  I remember the criticisms that it 'rhapsodized' suicide... for me it just reminded of the perfect fragility of adolescence... the sad wasted timeline of disappointment and cancellation-- the ambiguous and ambivalent value of quarantine.  But I am old and nostalgic-- empathic and sad.

On the other hand, apparently Cardi B. has just filed for custody of Kulture.  Let's hope not.  

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Saturday, August 29, 2020

Abandoned Ship

I was up earlier than usual for a Saturday-- took a jog uptown and saw my Boxer training by the Meer-- it's been months and we were happy to see one another-- enough to exchange smiles... his a kind of stiff grin through his mouthguard.  I love that he trains alone with the guard in.  He's serious. No mask.  No one is going to step into his 6-foot ring.  

By the public bathrooms a large man singing through a cheap karaoke kit-microphone... Stuck on You... of all things.  Last week it was Ain't No Sunshine.  He was bad.  Not Michael Jackson bad... just bad.  As I passed, like an announcer he cheered me on, through the little speaker-- yeah, Baby Girl, you do it...  Even I had to laugh... no one called me that even when I was a toddler.  I'm certainly no one's baby. 

Most of my life I have chosen the 'high road' in bad situations.  I have opted out of payment, given to charity, refused to argue when greed was the protagonist on the table, gone home with my pride a thin coating against the weather and the haters.  You and yo' damn principles, Tyrone scolded me when I refused to trade food stamps for cash.  I'll buy him lunch, but don't want his benefits.  

Me and my damn principles.  I feel like it's Act III of this Corona play; we're all in it, scriptless, rolling around like blind pinballs waiting to hit some bell or whistle-- illness, death-- job loss, eviction.  We're hunkered down here, some of us.  I've never abandoned the ship of my city before, but my building is less than half-occupied at the moment, and day by day I read Facebook announcements of emigres, deserters. What am I proving here?  I feel like a smoker on my last pack... what next?  

Uptown seems calmer than downtown; no moving trucks here, not much action on the street before dark.  People jogging, shopping... walking dogs, setting up for street barbecues and picnics-- but little anger... more like a what's next attitude and the hangover from 5 months of diminished life. We've become lazy-- flabby, unproductive.  We accept shitty television and whatever sports we can get.  We overpay for cable and internet-- it's become our new expensive bedmate. We argue less at checkout.  We drink alone and accept curfews.  

I've been getting a ton of art-related email.  Virtual exhibition tours, panels-- opinions, critiques, advice.  The 5 or 7 or 10 curators who have shaped the art market.  Over and over.  The social relevance of new art...  etc.  What does it take these days to be an art curator?  When I went to school we had to distinguish forgeries from authentic signatures-- fakes from actual.  We had to know.  Art meant something; there was a history and formal principles to be analyzed.  Like a history of classical music.  And contemporary.  Of course now that 'markets' are more important than art, all bets are off.  People are anesthetized and too lazy to look; they take the opinion of 'experts' like a medicine.  They buy what they are told.  They sell. These things don't wear well; back into the cycle.  

The way things are framed in this life seems to be important.  This is advertising-- presentation; wardrobe, make-up.  I have been shocked in my lifetime seeing celebrities totally 'naked'.  Unrecognizable.  The framing is essential.  I have seen paintings-- works of art-- sloppy and frayed, sometimes finger and foot-printed from an old studio floor... then transformed like funky ducklings into graceful wall-swans, surrounded by mounting trickery like celestial cloud-rendering. Ready for luxury customers.  

I started to think today-- how the unexpected afternoon sunshine transformed the Meer. There was even an unscripted rainbow-- or at least half a rainbow.  The water had just enough current to make a kind of quiet surf-music.  While I am pretty well-versed in naming painters and identifying artwork, I still haven't learned to recognize trees.  Nature doesn't really speak to me the way I know roads and cornerstones-- rooftop profiles and water-towers against skyscrapers... I have befriended lampposts and painted messages... they resonate in my human heart the way bookspines, cigarette packs-- have meaning.  Photographed faces in a row-- vinyl album covers-- stamp books and bootlaces-- cassettes in repurposed wine crates.  The way things hurt, when you are young... the way girls fell in love with one another at a certain age... you knew-- this face-- was going to be your best.  

Trash piles outside the projects are the same as ever... old TVs, discarded furniture, broken airconditioners-- strollers... but downtown, they are filling with things... with cast-offs and cartons of memory.  My people are deserting me.  Not for the first time I have the sense of a sinking ship... but I can find few reasons to hang in.  Maybe the 'principled' of us are on the diseased cruise ship of New York.  After the fear, the distrust, the social distancing and unrest-- the demonstrations and demands... the sorrow... Death has become at least one of the starring roles in this new play. Suicide, I have come to believe, is in all of our DNA... it is part of the human condition and the unique privilege we have.  Maybe the concept of suicide has yet to invade the collective soul of an urban animal.  Maybe we are on some verge.  

I've been thinking about the ocean-- watching hurricanes rage and recede, massive wave formations.  I've been listening, again, to Procol Harum's A Salty Dog... it's a kind of metaphor for grief, this album. It's beautiful and I miss this kind of songwriting-- these albums of our heart that seem memorialized in vinyl. My old copy is quite worn.  It asks me who will inventory my life when it is over? Who will curate, present and frame?  I'm not sure how this play ends; by then the ship may have sunk, and my moot and principled life will surely not be deemed seaworthy.  I hope someone somewhere will still treasure the lyrics of Keith Reid, or whomever...they resonate with even more truth in these times... Let him who fears his heart alone/Stand up and make a speech...

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Monday, August 10, 2020

If Six was Nine

Among the thousands of stories and heroics of ER and hospital personnel we read in the news daily, there was yet another recent version of the Jimi Hendrix tragedy.  More last-minute accounts and conflicting narratives of his final night:  the number of pills he took, the one found on the floor, the testimony of Eric Burdon, bad decisions of poor Monica who was scarcely a reliable or competent 'nurse'... whether the Mafia or the CIA or his own greedy management was responsible.  We read, we go back to that moment-- What if, we wonder-- and repeat our frustration and sorrow at the cruel loss of one of our cultural icons who in a few years changed rock guitar--- opened up a door, as these people do.  It is like a record-- it goes round endlessly and really we cannot see between the vinyl lines.

Beneath the veneer of this pandemic which has become 'life' for so many of us, there are other layers of existence-- one being made up of the lonely and otherwise sick, because death does not kindly stop for a global illness.  He rages on, tormenting his victims with cancer, allowing motorcycle accidents and fires-- terrifying explosions and bullet wounds.  And then the secret dying-- the suicides and sleepers, the debtors and evicted unemployed, the ones too confused to apply for government aid-- the panhandlers who can no longer survive on what frightened people do not put in their cup... the sidewalk singers and saxophones, the crawlers and street-barkers who have lost their place.  For all of these on the underbelly of the city, things have become more difficult.  Some reach out a hand for any substance anyone will spare-- bets are off, fear is the black cloud that follows their evening dread.  I see many sitting on the park perimeter, where they can still find the rare city benches that allow a person to lie down.

Many of these people surround themselves with things--- carts and strollers-- anything with wheels that will allow them to transport their possessions a short distance-- to the public bathrooms by the Meer, to food sources which are plentiful these days, ironically; at a bus shed the other night I found three small shopping bags with wonderfully packed dinners inside-- 'Please Take'  the packages said.  I did not.   But most of the homeless still scrounge through trashcans, scavenge outside fast-food stores where lines of people often eat quickly and discard scraps.  Yesterday a girl on Park Avenue and 111th Street was sitting on the curb eating from an old KFC bucket... a Citibike lying next to her-- she was filthy-- her lovely skin streaked with street soot... how do we save these people, I thought?  She looked up at me with eyes that rolled in her head... Yo, Mama, she said...  I kept walking.

I've been going through the possessions of a friend who passed from the virus.  It's a huge daunting task and even his family cannot manage.  He is of that 'race' of people who become a kind of hoarder... we are all guilty in my generation-- we collect things-- we are sentimental-- records, cassettes, cds, photographs... old clothing.  For those who are celebrities and musicians-- fans give them things; fans make them things.  When I was 15 I had a crush on Dustin Hoffman and waited outside his stage door to give him a careful portrait I'd drawn.  I met him at one point as adults and he claimed to still have it... who knows?  People with money have storage spaces and large homes-- on the street one must carry on their back or their carts.  Who is to say what is precious and valuable?

As we go through things-- postcards and pins and guitar picks-- each one opens up a little storybook-- a memory we might otherwise have lost... and some of these things, as we age, become 'orphaned'.. we have lost their identity, that moment... which boyfriend, which pressed flower.. which country?  When people die suddenly, they leave behind a flood of information, of sentiment and even secrets...
back it flows-- out to a vast sea of lost time-- the achingly beautiful moments and the useless unworthy junk... altogether.  Writers and artists sacrifice their lives to unravel these things-- to sort them, rescue them... because we failed somehow to rescue the deceased.

I remember a friend's father who was a compelling but complicated man;  he went home one night when he was in his alleged prime and put a pistol in his mouth.  Just before, he'd been at a diner and had a grilled cheese and coffee, smoked a cigarette... tipped the waitress modestly, as he did.  She spoke to me afterward-- how she could have saved him, had she only known.  Oh, but you did, in a way, I reassured her... perhaps many times... and she did not understand.

The death of my friend's son is the current knife in my back.  He belongs to one of the underlayers of these times-- the privileged happy, with the so-called 'everything'-- and yet they take their lives.  We spend endless nights tossing and regretting and wondering-- if we only-- just to go back-- those minutes-- he was alone and did this thing-- or perhaps, as I like to think, crossed a line-- knew immediately he wanted to go back-- the way jumpers who survive often describe the moment-- and was unable.  If only... Jimi Hendrix... Kurt Cobain... the sad suiciders full of brilliance who deprive us, who cannot bear their burden.  And then,  perhaps we have the story all wrong.

My mother always used to tell me, when I brought home sick or stray animals-- You cannot save everything.  It happened with men, too-- so many worth saving but so little time-- I eventually gave up.  Still, in my evening rounds of the Meer, I meet eyes with those who are willing;  I wave at the ones who seem 'parked' semi-permanently in the dusk with their packages and odds.  The pond is becoming greenish and murky at the edges, like the pool of New Yorkers who remain stubbornly in their city.  Please, I repeat to myself at night, please do not... to all of those who may be teetering on the edge of another world that beckons.  Do not leave us here, wondering, missing... beating ourselves, the way women in ancient cultures beat themselves in mourning... I understand this ritual, now.

I have on my table here a cheap little box with a metal pick inside-- the souvenir of my friend... equal to maybe one single cell in a massive organism that was his legacy.  He died of the virus, not his own hand, although we are left with the same sense of helpless failure.  In the multitudes of minutiae and memories, I realize he was saving himself, in a way, knowing that there is really no one at the end...  who will save us, tragic as it is.  If Six was only Nine....

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Friday, July 24, 2020

Ring, ring goes the bell...

When I was in elementary school they began bussing children in from other  districts to promote integration.  The new kids were black, so we all knew it was a racial not a cultural thing.  They were different-- a little less fearful of teachers; they brought attitude in-- not because it was inherent but maybe magnified because they didn't ask to ride a bus every morning and afternoon.  I loved this one girl in my class- Darcel.  She had cats-eye glasses and a big butt and strutted around like a queen.  She encouraged my bad behavior and classroom antics.  I wanted her approval; I got into trouble in Home Economics and they called in my parents.

By junior high we were pretty much integrated and adjusted.  There was a certain level of tension-- it was the 60's and civil rights issues were at the top of social studies discussions.  Radical intellectuals were questioning policy, human rights and justice.  To corral cafeteria energy, they let us dance; the black kids had a whole style and ruled at this... on the turntable they played 'Shotgun' over and over and kids went wild.  To cool off the energy, they began some program where we'd have to sit in an auditorium and eat lunch while they showed classic films-- things like Kidnapped or The Count of Monte Christo or even black and white films like Arsenic and Old Lace.  Kids threw sandwiches at the screen and the room smelled stale and 'meaty' like burped up salami.  It was not conducive to eating and for some reason the word quarantine yesterday conjured up that memory like food poisoning.

Scenes like this are beginning to blur; some of the sensations are so vivid I know they happened-- at times I can look down and see my plaid wool kilt or my blue corduroy skirt underneath my looseleaf notebook.  We didn't have backpacks; there was a bag with a drawstring for gym clothes but most kids like me piled their books and held them together with a rubber strap.  The black and white films made no sense; they weren't even funny and most of them were shown in 20-minute installments in the course of a week.  They were depressing and irrelevant the way I suppose movies like Butch Cassidy looked to my own son.

At some point I began tutoring kids in a less fortunate district where test levels were way below standard.  I was assigned a tiny girl named Doreen who was repeating First Grade for a third term.  She was so little I theorized her mother had lied about her age just to get the child-care kindergarten provided.  Things were different then; working mothers were often overwhelmed.  Doreen was extremely shy and could not seem to connect with alphabet.  I read stories to her and she was very attentive.  She'd lean up on me the way kids do and put her fingers in her mouth.  I can't read, Miss Amy, she would say matter-of-factly... they forced the kids to address me with a title.

No one had ever read to her.  No books in her house... no stories, no fairy tales... Read to me about Singerella, she'd say.  She loved Cinderella.. over and over.  I made little Cinderella flash cards-- brought in Colorforms.. but she did not connect any letters with characters... with things.  She had a block.  Still, I was determined-- and I looked forward to our sessions-- the sound of her little deep voice was hypnotic and monotonal.  Her little body leaning against me made me feel responsible and mothery.   She was clean in a way-- her hair was neatly separated and done in a multitude of tiny braids with plastic barrettes... in the straight scalp partings her Mom rubbed Vaseline, she told me.  But her scent-- it was as though she lived over a restaurant and the ghost of old food had permanently permeated her clothing and skin.

Every day I held the cards... gave little consonant hints with my mouth.. but she refused to think and just mimicked whatever I did.  Frustrating... not lollipops, nor barrettes, nor books enticed her.
One day I stayed after school for a meeting with all the tutors-- I watched her Mom pick her up and smack her as she put her in the car.  She just sat there in the seat making that face she made, like she was clucking her tongue.  Black lives matter, I thought, in different words... but I was useless for anything except getting her out of her humiliating classroom for an hour every day.  Of course I had no clue her mother had six other kids, a delinquent husband and a limited education herself.

Today on a crosstown bus a whole group of kids was on the way home from some kind of school program; they had uniforms and book bags and all of them had removed their masks and were carrying on in the back so it was hard not to laugh... they were about 10 years old...  where had they been, in this pandemic... summer school?  Was there air conditioning? Were they especially smart, especially slow?  Impossible to tell... but that aura of being released from a confining day was unmistakable.

Classroom learning for me was the model.  It was boring, repetitive, claustrophobic... incestuous and unfair... but that was the deal.  God forbid my parents would have had to home school me-- they had no patience and my Mom wasn't very smart.  Except she read to us-- Alice in Wonderland, the Wizard of Oz... she was a wonderful reader even when I was old enough to correct her pronunciations... I loved the evening chapter-installments.  There were also TV programs-- Mr. Wizard and even primitive interactive things where you'd stick a plastic screen on the set and draw with a crayon... but most learning centered on a class, facing forward, fixed desks in closely-set rows.  Tall in back, small in front.

I think about little Doreen-- she'd be about 57 now.  Jesus.  I'm sure she eventually learned to read; we'd finally mastered the letter 'D'.  In these times, I think Beyonce would play 'Singerella' in her little head... she'd have dreams and maybe even a tablet with youtube and Disney.  I can still remember her little-girl smell and the way she fidgeted on my lap-- couldn't get close enough like a sad dog.  Maybe she remembers me; I wasn't allowed to give her any gifts although I wanted to ... I wanted to take her home and keep her there and have her sit on my lap while my Mom read to us girls.  Then I graduated... met brilliant, strong black women... was taught by some of them... asked them about the Doreens and they shook their head and spoke about racism and cultural inequality.

Up in Harlem kids are bored-- playgrounds are still locked up... they are hanging out in clusters and seem relatively unafraid... but what will become of their classrooms-- the closeness and the physical
experience of people-- of lunchrooms, of sharing and trading and touching-- the covered mouths and masked noses-- singing and dancing and tasting? It's just so harsh.   My Mom used to warn us how cigarettes would stunt our growth... but all bets are off now.  People get used to things; dogs wag their tail when their owners put on a mask-- it means a walk...most seem grateful for phase 3-- it beats phase 1... and even prisoners adjust to lock-up... I guess... but we are all prisoners here... we are looking inward and outward and we are not happy; we are equally deprived and stripped of some freedom-- we are the skeletons in our own closets... facing down some kind of punishment some of us do not deserve-- a sentence without trial.  I'm not suffering; I'm old, I've had my fun, as the song goes... but for those who have not... the children... their lives matter most of all.

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Friday, July 10, 2020

Red, White and Blue

On July 4th I took an uncrowded 4 train to Brooklyn to hang with my son.  Solitude and quarantine have muffled the sounds of freedom ringing; just a few short weeks ago the pre-sunset curfew was downright penetentiarial.  I craved the sight of bridges and water and the Jersey shoreline-- the sense of distance, of space that is not measured out in six-foot lengths.  I thought the trip might help stir up some holiday spirit.

Walking to the subway was like an audio land-mine... firecrackers and street-caps exploding everywhere... Roman candles and sparklers whizzing by, blasts and M-80s and rockets threatening my old damaged ears.  I was jumpy; the station, even with the heat, was like a quiet refuge.  On the train, pretty much everyone wore a mask-- except the guy by the rear door who was smoking a joint and pointed out to me several times that I was the only white person in the car.  Certainly I was the only person without earbuds-- a captive audience to his rants and raps and disgruntlements.  When he pressed me for a response, I confessed I didn't feel very white, thinking about my unbleached laundry still drying off in the permanent humidity of my bathroom.   It seemed to satisfy him-- he offered me a toke and I turned it down, touching the mask.  In the relative calm of train noise, I felt safe.

In Brooklyn my son treated me to tacos on the roof of a cool Mexican place-- seemed appropriately a-patriotic for American Independence Day.  I had my first drink of alcohol since that last horrid glass of red at Parkside -- when Alan I toasted the proverbial end of the world as the downtown music scene hit the fan.  It burned a little-- like I was somehow disloyal for drinking without him.   A few couples socially distanced at tables seemed subdued... as though they were waiting for something; a young family with a cranky toddler reminded me of how exhausting the relentless claustrophobia of family can be-- how my first quarantine was like a numerical sentence-- me, a baby, an absent husband and the thick walls of early winter dusk that closed tightly around a mother who was accustomed to barhopping and rock and roll nights.  Sometimes I tire my son-the-man with memories and reminiscence... mostly I reduce it down to a general apology for my learning-on-the-job parenting style.

I insisted we check out the view from the Brooklyn promenade-- magical on any night, but the 4th held some promise of pyrotechnics and sky-entertainment, although nothing like the dazzling light-show of 2019-- the crowds, the buzz, the noise. The Statue of Liberty seemed to have shrunk... like someone picked her off and replaced her with a facsimile-- Liberty-Barbie with the green robe and the crown... and what reason had she to stand tall anyway... sham that she became in this administration with her baited false message of welcome to immigrants, the racially charged symbol of white freedom-- in a harbor with few boats, in a city where residents must mask their face and fear their neighbors?  She, too, seemed subdued and ironic...

Where is my freedom, I wondered?  Is it here... on a promenade by a river I've known most of my life, looking at an altered landscape across a bridge I used to watch from my childhood pram-- the one that haunted my dreams for years-- even still?  On my birth certificate which identifies me as female and white-- a citizen of New York City where I find myself tethered-- despite my youthful wanderings and yearnings... ?  What has become of my city-- a scene of emotional wreckage and the slow attrition of all that I loved most?

The post-4th evenings are quiet although I read in my audio manual that the city ambient sounds have a significant decibel presence.   My dusk runs are still punctuated by heart-stopping random firework explosions.  I have become more intimate with Central Park than I ever expected...  I recognize the routine joggers and walkers-- the babies growing and the Boxers getting their mojo back... My egret has disappeared; surely she is somewhere in the city.  The ducks and geese seem to have a certain purpose... recently a few of them line up on the tiny rock island in the center of the reservoir; they have an order-- they do not seem to compete.

In the distance of dark there are few sirens now; the traffic is subdued and tame.  There is an occasional quiet roar from a pack of demonstrators but even these have become less frequent.  Fewer airlines pass above... fewer traffic helicopters.  My windows are always open; I live without air conditioning and maybe hallucinate from the heat. When I was small I believed in a country (my country) called Tizovthee-- sweet land of liberty.  I squinted horizon-clouds into purple-hazed mountains and transported myself there, land of the pilgrim's pride.  Of 'Thee' I sang-- its nickname...  halfway between heaven and Oz.   The mountains paint themselves nostalgically into the sky behind the towers of the El Dorado.  They stay with me as I type into the morning hours, as I waste time and dawdle with books and memories, go from guitar to text.

But there is another component of these nights-- it is a sort of cloud that hovers-- blankets and beckons like a scent... a few of my friends have been captivated and succumbed... I read their names
in the obituaries, on Facebook pages and Twitter posts.  It is there as the sun sets in its fiery death throes of pinks and golds, as the morning sky threatens to replace the black with its electric blue magic... deceives, taunts me into a new day-- or to the edge of sleep.  It sings to me--  of the bloodless cool of breathlessness, of the enchanting nightmare of fever, of a slipping away--a letting go-- of the girl who is lost in a lake tonight or adrift in an untraceable boat-- in a plane with a cut engine, a receding surf and a wind.  For some of us there is another kind of freedom that beckons-- that makes us safe, but offers solace when there is none.  I am learning to forgive those who cannot resist... I understand... there are bells... and as I misheard the song when I was young, without lyric sheets, perhaps the sound of freedom laughing.

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