Friday, June 16, 2017

The Fire Next Time

Living in a city we are accompanied, it seems, by sirens.  There is not an hour that passes when some police or firetruck is not racing to some emergency call, followed too often by an ambulance or EMT vehicle.  If you are a parent-- no matter how old your children are-- this is your first association.  You worry, you pray.  People who have lived in cities during wartime have a deeper relationship with sirens.  After 9/11, we in New York city will never be the same.  For some, a siren may be comforting-- the sound of rescue.  For me, it is like a nerve which wakes.  If you have ever been involved in a fire, you understand its destructive power... the damage, the pain, the devastation... is beyond comprehension.  If you have ever been burned-- or cared for someone who was burned-- the process of treatment and healing, if this is even possible, begins at a threshold of pain most of us cannot imagine... and it escalates from there.  It gives war a new meaning.  And the prospect of nuclear war-- the threat-- seems like a hideous anomaly of humanity and an intellectual distortion of the 'program' of mankind.

The London fire this week brought this horror into graphic consciousness.  Our 20th-century symbols of urban progress-- skyscrapers-- can become dangerous traps of mass destruction, as we have learned.  Personally, I like living where I can climb down a fire escape somewhere... the luxury of a view is something I can bypass and something I will not again afford in this lifetime.  But the projects-- every city has its council flats, low income housing.  You get what you pay for; people accept their assignation.  Some are fortunate and live in great Manhattan neighborhoods with river views which cost them nothing.  I used to envy kids in the projects when I was little-- they had a common playground, a sort of small gated community; everyone seemed to know everyone.  They barbecued, they played radios and boomboxes.  Fathers came home and sat on benches in the summer; kids ran under sprinklers, their grandmas knitted and crocheted and gossiped after dinner.  But these come with a price.  The families have very little voice; if there is one bad egg the kids are a little unprotected.  Things happen, the police treat these communities with tough vigilance and less sympathy.  The maintenance is often sloppy and utilities are under-serviced.  The city or state can be an unresponsive landlord.  These people don't always complain or have the resources to know how to complain.

A friend of mine just confessed he is facing the horrifying prospect of losing his teeth.  How many times, recently, have I run into a musician or any one of my bohemian friends who lives below the economic horizon (most of us!) and lacked the means and medical support to take care of this?  Clinics won't repair beyond the minimum.  They extract.  You are poor-- what does it matter?  I worked at an East Harlem clinic one summer and found the dentist pulled children's permanent teeth because he claimed none of them will follow up a root canal; once their pain is gone, they are gone.  It seemed cruel.  I also saw 10-year-old kids with teeth rotting from sweets and lack of care.  Many of them were illegal immigrants and terrified they would be reported if they saw a doctor or dentist.  So they waited.

The point is, decent medicine has become an economic privilege.  It's not Obamacare, it's the damned insurance companies-- the drugs, the ads, the money.  It's a horrid business and corners are cut everywhere.  People are massively rich from this business; system abuses are everywhere and poor people must accept what they get which is substandard. My friend died of cancer, with maybe standard treatment but such minimal palliative care and very little sympathy from the system.  She had no voice, no lawyers to get her missing family millions of dollars from Johnson and Johnson, no experience or ability or even strength to complain.  As her advocate, it was an exhausting and losing struggle.  We had no access to new, experimental and less cruel treatments.  She suffered and died in agony.

Good countries like Sweden house their lower and middle classes with respect and dignity.  These people are cared for with socialized medicine-- just like their richer neighbors. There are jobs for people; there are resources and people are happy and do not seem bitter and angry.  In cities like New York and London-- the populations are huge and growing.  The gap between rich and poor has become so wide, most of us have fallen in.  Business opportunities are abundant in a city, but poor people are poor consumers.  I haven't bought myself a new anything in so long, I wouldn't know what to do with an extra $100.  I scrimp and save, glean cheap staples from weekly sales, walk among the poor.  I do not get food stamps.  I qualify, but I have issues here. I am a survivor.  I live in a coop I managed to purchase many years ago when this was possible.  No building now would ever allow me to rent or buy.  My income is meager.  I am far below poverty level and yet I survive because I have a brain.  It is incredibly high maintenance to navigate New York on $20 a week but I manage and I continue to chip away at my goals and my work.  I feel privileged. I am no longer a mother and can subsist on rice and coffee without kids complaining.  God help me if my brain goes.  I will become a statistic.

People with large families who struggle do not have the time or energy to deal with so many things.  They forget, they postpone.  Daily urgencies take priority.  Some people forget to put batteries in their  smoke alarms.  The people in Tribeca last week who succumbed to carbon monoxide-- what was their economic profile?  But poor people in projects tend to be treated as children.  They are cared for and managed by the state.  It is all they can do to feed their families and get a little sleep.  They have little control over maintenance and options.  They are victims of the system, and when something goes wrong, they are victims of someone else's poor decision.

Bernie Sanders was shut down.  The business of medicine in the US is so vast I doubt anyone will ever blow it apart.  The epidemic of greed is way larger and way more hideous than the plagues of medieval times.  Illnesses are an income opportunity.  Vaccines are sold in the millions; our television is constantly advertising new costly drugs... they are buzzwords in our children's ears... and months later it is the TV legal teams soliciting users of these drugs for lawsuits.  We are lab rats, we are victims.   As long as the medical professionals follow proscribed 'protocol' however absurd and useless it seems, they cannot be sued.  This is the benchmark of medicine in a country where insurance premiums make private practice nearly impossible for medical students who dream of saving people with good preventive care.  So they prescribe, follow the system.  Even when they know better.  They look the other way.  They need to pay their exorbitant rent.   Their patients are for the most part obedient and become dependent.   Especially the poor whom we see sitting patiently in their medicaid-provided wheelchairs, waiting for buses with reduced-fare passes and piles of medicaid scripts and food stamps which allow them to buy masses of groceries which are not necessarily nutritionally sound, but which allow the supermarkets to sell quantities of product at uber-retail.  They offer their benefit card; they do not price-check.  It is not their fault.  They are under-informed.  Some of them voted for Trump because they do not read real news and nothing seems to change their life anyway.  They live in the moment.  They have food and go home and watch television.  They watch on their phones.

I can't even wrap my brain around this government.  What I do see is that people not only have a constitutional right to be free, to voice their opinions without fear-- but also to safety, to health care-- the same care for everyone.  The same engineering and building standards for everyone.   All lives matter.  Not just rich, celebrity lives but every single one of us.  The London fire called attention to this... and for a week or so, we urban people may consider these things... but then most of us will go on and binge watch our shows, and shop, and complain on Facebook, as we do.

Here I am, the aging lefty liberal, on my tiny digital soapbox offering very little.  But at least I am thinking...  and I walk around the city without a phone.  I look at things and talk to people-- not just my peers and artist and musician friends, but regular people.  Everywhere I see and hear things that upset me-- red flags, injustices, infractions.  If you see something, say something, the subways warn us.  Well, there is a human application of this as well.  Not the shysters and crooks who want your money on the streets, but the hundreds of thousands of good, hardworking victims of the system who maybe need a friend or some help.  One at a time, we can do something, all of us.  Put down your phone and look around.  Some things are inevitable.  But there is right and there is wrong.  There is daily tragedy; but maybe some can be prevented.  At least one life might feel 'mattered'... otherwise we are all victims of this regime of the monied, vassals of the Wall Street culture and the perversion of capitalism.  We can be creative... we can think, we can reach out and speak out, we can revive the concept of personal heroism-- love our less privileged neighbors and remember what it meant to be a real citizen in a free country.  Amen.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Gimme Shelter

As I've said before, I live on the cusp of two neighborhoods-- one posh and landmarked-- block after block of old, grand buildings with sidewalk gardens, elegant doormen servicing large apartments many of which have been handed down from generation to generation.  The other-- East Harlem-- a mixed bag of renovations and new businesses interspersed with block after block of projects.   Coming home the other evening, a man from the posh side was walking his retriever-- wearing pocketless shorts and a leather jacket-- the luxury of being able to go out and not even lock his door, knowing his trusted building staff will protect everything.   As I passed, the dog was in the act of relieving itself-- the great common denominator of life… and I recognized the owner as Jamie Dimon, notorious overpaid head of JP Morgan, talking head of the financial crisis, a man whose bank was loaned umpteen billions in a scandalous economic bailout, and walked away with a reward.  I resent these neighbors, many of whom live in the same fortress-like building around the corner, with a set of unformed guards outdoors like some kind of UES Buckingham Palace fantasy.  I silently bared my teeth, and didn't turn to watch him in the act of picking up after his dog.

Back in the days of Mayor Koch, when the first dog-waste law was passed, people balked and resisted.  My own dog looked at me like I'd lost my mind.  This, I thought, will clear the city dog population.  No one is going to want to live this way, publicly cleaning up after our animals, looking for a place to stash the trash, etc.  It felt damned humiliating.  But it didn't.  In fact, it seems there are more dogs than ever-- fewer buildings forbidding pets, which used to be rather common in the 60's and 70's-- more dog runs and pens, a huge new generation of pet services and shops, boarding and grooming options, dog walking and training, psychologists and specialized veterinarians.

The dog culture in New York is maybe beginning to edge out the child culture for economic opportunity and profit.  When I had my son here, there were maybe 3 stores in the city which sold baby furniture, very few toy shops besides Toys R Us.  Baby Gap had just opened up; things like jogging strollers had yet to be invented.  We looked to Scandinavia for well-designed accessories and carriers.
The market now is glutted with products-- toys, vehicles, safety devices, learning programs, phone apps. Re: dogs… cats… there were a few specialty pet stores… now there are spas, trainers, day-boarding, hotel accommodations, fashion, food, etc…

I grew up with dogs… yes, some retrievers and bred varieties-- but mostly strays and mutts I found and brought home.  Still, they were treated as animals-- no frills, no table food, no grooming and primping.  My Dad disciplined them with the same sternness as his children.  They got hosed down when necessary….  the long-haired ones were sheared for summer-- no fancy cuts. But they were wonderful animals-- companions, life-savers, friends, soul mates.

So many of my friends have filled their lives with animals.  It's a beautiful thing, but I still have a hard time when I see middle-aged women pushing their pets in baby strollers, cooing and babbling to their manicured little Yorkies and arguing with food establishment staff when asked to leave their animals outside.  There are women in my neighborhood who forgot to have kids-- or maybe never wanted them-- and have replaced some kind of maternal instinct with the dog bug.  People are going to hate me for this, and I am essentially an animal lover, but I still believe dogs are dogs.  I like to see them running wild in fields, chasing birds, rolling in the dirt, hunting prey, jumping for joy and diving into bodies of water.  Most are natural swimmers.

Walking across the Brooklyn bridge yesterday, I was once again impressed with the swarms of people who find New York endlessly explorable.  Residents, commuters, tourists.  The views of Manhattan from the other boroughs are constantly changing-- the density of new architecture is not just impressive but alarming.  The crowds of residents swell and services are in demand.  New York City is uber heaven.  It is also dog central.  I wonder if there is a pet census.  It seems to be almost a prerequisite for young couples and families… a priority.

My best dogs, like my men, were the bad boys.  I loved my wandering strays.  They taught me a harsh lesson about life and also helped me to learn the difference between parenting and ownership.  Dogs are dogs… and kids-- well, they are family and responsibility, and works in progress.  Training is never over; problems abound.. preparing a being for independence is a very different task than teaching a creature about dependence.  Love is not conditional; punishment is difficult and the Pavlovian approach goes just so far.  Trust is something we must nurture and learn.  Dogs love the hand that feeds; not so with children.  And appetites are complicated.

What I am trying to say, I think… is first I find it understandable but challenging that our sympathies are so easily triggered by animals-- abused animals, abandoned and sick animals.. .while the world and our city are overpopulated with abandoned people-- the abused or ill who have fallen off track and are not so easy to cage and adopt.  Foster children-- misbehaving children, disabled children without genuine support.  Few people are likely to stop in the street and give their heads a pat or offer them treats.  It's tough.

But also, I think there's kind of a message in the fact that we have an overwhelming need for the iconic canine virtues-- loyalty, fidelity…  and these are becoming more and more rare in this media-ruled culture.  Much easier to buy or adopt values ready-made then to try to build them into the fabric of your life.  Buy a cute dog-- feed it, train it--- it will stay by your side.  Not so with friends, or even family.  Not everyone shows up when your chips run out, or you get a terminal diagnosis.  But your dog won't know the difference or judge.  Jamie Dimon knows this when he picks up after his retriever.

I loved my bad stray dog.  He took off periodically, but when he came back it more than made up for the fair-weather conditional behaviors of so many of my family.  It felt real.  It felt deserved and mutual.
What still bothers me is my poor friend who passed away in isolated agony, unwilling to abandon her cat who seemed to care little for its owner, and who in the end received a lion's share of concern while
her human owner heroically suffered in a kind of cruel human abandonment.  It's difficult and awkward to reach out to the sick and dying and destitute around us… but we can learn from our animals who love us despite our physical or health issues.  When alone, they are placed in shelters, where hopefully human sympathy will rescue them.  For my friend, there was no shelter, nor was she commended for her loyalty and love for animals.  Not by her cats, not by her neighbors.  On Memorial Day, I offer the sound of my one hand clapping for her, a veteran not of war but of life… a kind person who took so little, whose only true companion in life and death was a cat-- one of many she'd rescued and saved her from utter loneliness but in the end was helpless and a little distant, as cats can be.  Surely it did not know her only dying wish was for its safety and comfort.  Loyal as a dog, she was.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

View from the Bridge

I grew up pledging allegiance to my country’s flag every morning in nursery school where few of us even understood the words we mostly mispronounced.  We put our hands on our hearts and swore things and then we sang about God and other things.  These repetitions were part of our daily ritual, like a mantra.  At sleepaway camp I sang the Doxology at lunch; another repetition.  I liked recitations; I liked music.  I liked the sound of girls' and boys' voices in unison, like a choir.

Later on we questioned things, we refused to repeat words we didn’t believe in, we found the exceptions to every rule and that became a temporary raison d’etre.  By the time I was an adult, no one was mouthing things in school anymore; no one was pledging-by-rote or reciting things about God except in church.

I traveled out of the country for the first time as a young teenager; I was an exchange student in a totally rural village in Mexico which was an education in itself.  But it was the first time I became aware of being American, with all the advantages—and of the envy and the bitterness of people in a poor culture where plumbing was a luxury and electricity a rarity; where they’d experienced the well-meaning efforts of things like the Peace Corps which too often came off like smug imperialist elitism. Bleeding heart US liberals, rich kids wearing their overalls and charitable deeds like badges of honor.  My Mexican family had seen them digging ditches in their backyards with their transistor radios and their rock-band messaged T-shirts and didn’t much care for them.

This month I’ve been to 4 countries in a short space.  On the trip to Oslo I realized it was the first time I’d left the US since the election.  My SAS plane was packed with Norwegians; they didn’t even bother making announcements in English.  They handed out the required boarding cards the US began issuing after 9/11 because they wanted to know where you were traveling and on what plane in case of some incident.  But this time no one collected them at Passport control.  Maybe it was an oversight, but I felt as if we were downgraded to second-rate status and our priorities no longer have respect or meaning.  Besides, Donald Trump couldn’t give a shit about me or anyone else who is not going to line his gilded pockets.

My friends here in Stockholm have visited New York as often as they could; they’ve always been interested in tracing the origins of contemporary pop culture, like a pilgrimage.  They come to see where Bob Dylan lived, where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death, where Nancy stabbed Sid and where Thomas Wolfe came to produce his thick volumes of prose. I’ve always had a certain ‘currency’, being a native New Yorker; I witnessed things they read about and brushed shoulders with their idols before they were famous.  My love for Stockholm is known; it’s my ‘holm away from home.  I’ve played and sang here, recorded music, been loved, appreciated and entertained.  It is maybe the most beautiful city in the world… and still, I’ve always still had the underlying longing to return to my New York.

Today there’s a photo of not-my-president on the front of one of the daily Swedish papers; this is a social democracy—it’s a liberal and fair society; in the place I’m staying, owned by a middle-class older couple, a sticker on the washing machine shows Michael Moore’s face with the caption ‘Take Back the White House!’  Stockholm suffered a terrorist attack recently but they go on as the free society they are.  I realize I don't feel quite the same as an American… I'm sick of apologizing for a massive political error and an incompetent administration.  I'm tired of the jokes; they're wearing thin.

One of the things I love most about Stockholm is its geography.  The islands all have their own character and are navigable by foot.  Crossing the various bridges is not just breathtaking but gives a unique sense of perspective on the city.  I have always loved bridges; in New York, my son and I walked the 59th Street, the Brooklyn—even the Hell Gate Bridge.  There is always a moment—half way maybe, where you feel ungrounded…suspended… free, in a way, but with that crossroads thing in your head—knowing on every bridge, everywhere, someone has stood and thought about the jump.  It adds another dimension to my bridge-crossing metaphor.

Today I was on an especially high crossing, where I could see the water beneath my feet—the blackish, still-wintry, restless current.  I thought about going home—the end of my stay coming up.. and suddenly I realized going back to my country at this moment of political chaos, shame… provided no comfort.  The gap between going and coming home is significant; this time I feel I’m returning, but not to a place of belonging or security.  It’s like the national rug has been pulled out from under us and replaced with a blanket of golf-course turf.  For the first time in my life, I feel vaguely homeless.  I can only imagine how our US immigrants are suffering—standing on their bridge, with nowhere to return to, nowhere to enter… ‘Send these, the homeless tempest- tossed to me…’ the poem says… but no longer.  I will go home, in name only, like an immigrant, hoping to find my old dream in a place where the symptoms of greed and selfish Titanism are consuming the heart of my city.  Not the world that produced me; not the world of any godly version of society.  Holding the return portion of my roundtrip ticket, I feel duped and stranded rather than safe and welcome.  Fortunately I still have a day to two to contemplate my view from the bridge.  Not so for everyone.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Dogged

Somewhere between dusk and evening, I felt something slip through a hidden entrance- a cracked door, a hole in the sky.  I might have been on a plane from Tokyo... thinking about the way birds fly in a line some afternoons-- as though they are desperately trying to give us a sign, read us a message... and we, the opaque humans that we are-- fail to decipher, to notice, to apply.  I was staring out of a window on a long flight where time zones, geography, space and cultures melt and blur... where the view of atmosphere and clouds takes us to a place which seems un-life-like... close to the place we began, to the place we will rejoin.  Somehow it seems we are not meant to experience the literal milieu of an out-of-world place, that we are meant to be walking on the ground, using our feet and our hands like the primitive beings we once were.

Miles above our home, things like death, God, eternity-- they are within our grasp, we think... dreams and fantasy seem possible... we are one with the clouds... we are in the place of vast infinity and space.  On the ground, in a tiny room of the city, death was paying a visit to a friend I'd made maybe only because his illness compelled him to reach out, to connect with someone with whom he'd never have made contact.  But there we were-- star-crossed and intimate-- we adopted one another briefly, like my seatmate who had bared her heart to me before dinner.

Last month my other friend finally released herself from the agony which had worn her the way some homeless men cling to an old coat which has long ago lost its usefulness, its shape, its reason.  She died like an abandoned animal-- like a dog, the expression is, I think.  Besides me, who was for whatever reason bound to execute her final perverse wish,  there was no one to relieve her, to administer, to comfort.  Her cat, to whom she dedicated her final choices, seemed oblivious and callow.  It ran from end to end of the apartment every time I entered, rejoiced at the opening of a can, purred with gusto after feeding... watched me hawkfully as I failed to find any reasonable solution for my friend's discomfort.  The cancer devoured her like a hungry hyena, but cruelly left just enough so she was conscious of the hell of her disease.  It went on beyond the limits of any decent humanity.  In Hospice they would have dosed her lethally with morphine long before.  The only metaphor I could summon was being in hard unproductive labor for a year.  It was that bad.  Relentless.  On the wall was no Do-Not-Resuscitate, no final instruction except a note requesting that her ex-boyfriend-- the one who had not shown his face for years, even though he lived nearby and was listed as next-of-kin-- be called to pick up the cat in case she died.  From its age, I suspect this note had been posted many years before she had an inkling of cancer, and maybe worried she'd drink too much and hit her head on the floor some night.  Or that one of the myriads of unworthy men she bedded would get rough.

Anyway, 'cats' was on the note; as long as I'd been coming in and out to help her, there was only one surviving animal.  I'd spoken to several people I knew about her situation.  It was dire and she was pretty much destitute.  Personally I was raised with dogs.  My mother disliked cats and associated them with spinsterhood and eccentric lonely women.  She was superstitious and not sophisticated about certain things, but she raised me to avoid their company.  Dogs-- honest and boisterous and loyal.  They stay with you when you're sick; they grieve for you.  But what I discovered among the population of animal-lovers in my friend-circle, was their sympathy for her cat was universal while all they gave poor Lucia was a tilt of the head.

I see hoards of homeless people on the street these days.  I can't take a subway ride without being shaken down by an outstretched hand and a story; it feels like the 70's again.  Yes, I'm a sucker for these people.  After all, I ended up tending to a lonely ill woman who wasn't particular nice to me, and would never have given much attention to anyone's suffering.  I stayed to the very end, to the moment of heeding the instructed phone call on the wall even though I could have punched her ex for his utter lack of showing up, whatever their relationship.  She had no one.

A few people absorbed the fact that she'd passed through my posts and poetry.  The reality of her death was the worst thing I have ever experienced; the agony and hideous lack of closure is impossible to exorcise.  But for a situation where I was not even allowed to arrange a burial or funeral, the number of people inquiring about the fate of the cat was overwhelming.  And not just inquiring-- scolding me, insisting-- bleeding for the cat who was old and fine and not particularly sympathetic or charming... with not a word for her owner who had equally prioritized her animals.

On the Tokyo plane, I watched Lion.  The credits gave statistics on the staggering numbers of lost and missing Indian children.  I wept through most of the film.    Three nights before, I was half asleep and happened to catch some blurb about one of the Beverly Hills Housewives and her new charity to save dogs from cruelty in China.  Yes, I love animals.  I have nurtured strays, fed (yes!) cats and sick pigeons,  felt sorry for dead rodents.   I tried hard to communicate with my suffering friend's cat who seemed to ignore both of us.  But what I cannot comprehend is the utter failure of humanity to sympathize with fellow men as much as they adore their pets.  There are many abused animals, I agree; but the number of sick and negected children-- not to mention neighbors and friends who suffer needlessly and die without compassion and care-- is baffling.

So while I love my neighbors' pets and will care for their dogs when they are sick or away, I can't help wagging a finger at people who cannot find time to look in on a sick or ailing or helpless human being whose unfortunate psyche is created to feel the pains of loneliness and isolation nearly as much as physical discomfort.  The homeless who sit on corners with sad-eyed and hungry  animals get way more financial sympathy than they do alone.  What is wrong with us that we seem to disregard our own kind in favor of animals who I concede have very little hatred in their hearts? But neither do babies and humans who have not been mistreated and punished and deprived.

Let's put the human back in humane... let us not forget our fellow creatures, unappealing and ruined and seemingly ungrateful as they may be; when you are sick and unable and tired and must deal with the pathetically inadequate medical system which favors the rich and the animals among us... it is not easy.  Have at least the sympathy of an average dog.  Amen.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Eyes on the Prize

During a week of prize-giving-- not the Olympics or Grammies, but the Pulitzers… I begin to think about what it is writers do, about what sort of literary cream rises to the top in this era of digital hocus-pocus.  Undoubtedly there is traditional wonderful work being done.  This is the first time I actually knew one of the winners; he seemed to be sort of a peer, and yet now he is crowned-- he has risen, perhaps never to return.

But which comes first: the poet or the poem?  Does everything that leaves the designated poet's pen become a poem?  Is mediocrity the inevitable by-product of awards?  So often the precious stereotype of the starving, desperate artist, awash in inspiration, drowning in passion-- it begins to peel away, to shrink beneath the satin robes of achievement.  

I've been playing blues for years.  For so long I had no deep respect for the tradition; I didn't 'get' it.  The first time I stood beside John Lee Hooker, some epiphany came through me like a sword… the music began to rise, it told its own story-- it wrapped around and inside and quietly shook me where I stood.  It was familiar, and new, and it took me with it like a train.  I've sat on the laps of Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, I've stood beside them and felt something real and important-- some undeniable true cry of life listened to words that rhyme with heartbeats.   Does this merit a Pulitzer prize?

Last night I found myself in a neighborhood I don't often visit-- midtown east.  It was flush with tourists, bus-groups and wandering families buying Starbucks and souvenirs, looking up at office buildings and passing Duane Reades and bank lobbies on wide, lit streets.  Is this New York,  I asked myself?  Please, I wanted to urge the visitors-- this is nothing-- -these are convenience stores and real estate-- there is no city here.  There is no warp and weft and living tapestry; there is no music and no poetry-- no grit and color and shouting and history.

I grew up in the myth of my city.  I created my own legends, absorbed the atmosphere of the artists and writers and composers I sought out, breathed their breath and inhaled their message.  I grew up wanting to create my own language and a voice with which to speak.  I needed to have something to say, and I tried to dissect moments as I lived them so their content became my raw materials.

Recently I published a book of poetry.  It is a nostalgic collection of memories through which I'd hoped to honor the dream of my first serious love affair, and the first person through whom I began to see a version of life that was visionary and spiritual.  Of course, it could have been the psychedelics and other drugs, but there was music and original songs-- passion and a voice I will never forget.  He died so young, and I recently found a cache of letters he'd written and I'd never received. I felt compelled to write-- or maybe the poems wrote themselves.  I could have gone on, but I made a book… it has some truth for me, a fairly uncontrived recovery of the moments as they were revealed to me-- with some hindsight, but not too much.

I've had it on my mind to reach out to his family whom I knew very little, so long ago.  Today I managed to find a brother via Facebook, explained in a message who I was, asked if I could send a book.  He replied with coldness that he'd rather just 'leave it as it is'.  I was not just shocked but hurt, devastated-- cried for hours… knew I'd picked the wrong brother, that he'd never convey anything to the more sensitive sisters, or anyone else…  it was a dead end; I felt he'd sliced off my outstretched hand.

I often wander the city… listening to my own voice which feels sometimes like the crying woman in that Picasso mural who to me is the human 'star'.  I see so many broken people and these are the ones that enter me-- the ones I take home, the ones who tell their story at night through my fingers at the keyboard, or who sing to me as I pick up my guitar.

The man who won the prize-- he'd shared some poems before the book came.  They were large poems-- they had a purpose and a subject… but most of all, I realized, they were larger than the room in my apartment where he read them; they were podium poems-- a sort of speech or declaration… an 'address'.  Maybe that is the secret.  They were made to be heard.  To be spoken.  They were already famous.  He is a professional.

It's taken me 35 years to call myself a musician and even there I feel unworthy.  This is my work, my job.  Poetry is a calling--  a process-- a verb.  To call myself a poet seems premature and pretentious-- it presumes everything I write I consider some kind of 'art'.  My poems-- well, they are my poems; they are voices or songs or whispers.  They are as they arrive-- in their naked, broken awkward intimacy.. part of a process that weaves listening and coaxing voices from inside things.   They are not sure of themselves… they are being born, they are quiet and not famous-- not podium fare or poster-ready.   'Keep your eyes on the prize' is a famous American gospel lyric.  My poet friend certainly knows these words and they certainly guided him to some winning.  As for me, I guess I am too busy looking down-- listening.  I'm afraid I wouldn't know a prize if it hit me in the head, and I'm in some fine company here.  Amen.


Friday, March 31, 2017

The Anti-Saint

Death is in the house this week.  Not that he is ever anywhere else-- I often feel his cold breath on my right hand, reminding me not to take my eighth notes for granted.  Some nights it is my left ear-- like he is whispering to me in some weathery language: Listen to the rain, he says… or Notice how the fog speaks-- how it blurs lines and descriptions-- yes, this is his language, his courtship-- his entry…

Last week I sat with him by the side of my friend.  He taunted me-- She's mine, he said; she's been mine for years now… this is just the final approach…  Then stop the suffering and have her, I scolded him…  Ahh but don't you enjoy this time with me, he asked?  You and I and Jesus-the-cat in this lonely dark apartment, you with your silly rosary beads and your sympathy?   Me just having a rest in the city-- usually I must be quick and urgent here.  Exhausting, these urban hubs-- with the hit-and-runs, the shootings and overdoses… the jumpers and depressed, the muggers and murderers who beat me at my own game.  Then I have to consider revenge.  But you-- you're so quiet here…you the writer of my music… you're so facile with the language of gravestones and black winds… it's so peaceful sitting with you in the dark, watching…

This is the way Death spoke to me while he also watched my friend writhe in her extended agony without emotion.  He was quiet, he was cold.  I left him for a few hours and he finished the deed, left his mark and no sign that there was peace at the end.  My vigil was clearly over, and I ended up without a souvenir, without closure-- on the other side of the hideous yellow police-tape which was used to mark off her doorway.  No answers, no autopsy; without a will or testament, she is legal property of the city medical examiner's office, another cold corpse in the morgue awaiting the appearance of some kin or family who never showed up during her illness-- so why would they want to pay for a funeral?

There is little I can do; after all the nights and days of fear and diagnosis, treatment and suffering and anxiety… the questions and tears--- decisions and research… I cannot even be certain of her name.  She is another mystery-- another open wound in the sequence of human experiments for which I have somehow enlisted, my friends tell me-- out of some genetic defect which continues to prompt me to turn around every time someone says 'help'.  Or 'Mommy'. Or even 'Mami'.

I can't seem to sign up for lucrative jobs-- me, who turned down a Harvard Law scholarship-- the sore thumb of my family, with the ivy league black sheepskin.  I refuse to gig in club-date bands or even tribute projects which might compensate reasonably enough for me to afford groceries like a normal person--  to take a taxi every once in a while,  to see a movie that's not on free TV, have a coffee I didn't make myself… to buy anything that hasn't been used by someone else.  I admire your conscientious deprivation, Death commented-- As thought you're preparing for the next life-- when all bets are off.  And he has spared me, once or twice--- or many times-- when a city bus brushed so close as I crossed an avenue-- when a plate glass window fell 60 stories and sprayed me ever so lightly with the tiniest splinters… he's definitely loaned me a few free passes.

So how do I explain my attachment to a no-win situation-- a doomed patient who was not particularly loving or nice or even appreciative, although at the very end she did express some tough gratitude, and I assured her it was my privilege to have been able to be there? Was it my privilege?  Was it my own personal penance, my perverted version of twisted sainthood to atone for all the mistakes I've made-- the bad marriages and the failures?  I definitely identified somehow with my poor deceased friend, who had paid a lonely price for a pile of bad choices.  Was that it?

The truth is, I love my life.  I cling to my bizarre stoicism and spartan lifestyle and I manage to produce something I feel is worthwhile.  My distractions are emotional and empathetic ones; my path is often lonely and without luxury.  I read a description of middle-income housing  qualifiers last night and was shocked to discover the low-end cut-off was 10 times my annual income.  I am not just low, but below poverty income-qualifying.  Who is going to sit by my side at my end, with no prospect of reward or inheritance?  I have yet to come across my own double.

Still, I know I would have made the same choices, again and again.  We can't take all this stuff with us, and I have plenty of meaningful stuff, although I have no fortune.  No, I did not ask Death for a bit of extra time for good behavior, although maybe that is what I intended, subconsciously.  I have work to do-- things to leave behind that someone some day may value.. not in dollars, but in worth.   There is no closure at the end; there was no relief for me, and I feel the spirit of my friend wandering the dark streets--- after all, she is in the morgue, a kind of urban  purgatory; she did not help herself or me with any information or truth that might have made the process easier.  I, too, am stubborn and have some pride; I might have wanted control of my own end, when I had lost all else-- even if it meant dying like an abandoned dog, in pain and without loved ones-- only some version of me, which in itself is doubtful.  What separates me from my friend? I leave my poetry-- my music-- I make cds and books-- my 'calling'.  Do people acknowledge even the artistic version of sacrifice?  Occasionally there is a comment, or praise, or 'likes'… but in the end, it is another item for the loss column, on the balance sheets of pragmatism and poor financial health.  But I will continue, despite lack of closure.

For my friend there is perhaps burial-- or cremation, or scientific autopsy-- but there are still dreams and memories, and a past somewhere-- customers who drank what she poured, men who made passionate love to her-- cats and pets who slept at her feet.   And then there is me, the sleepless writer who will continue to commemorate this woman's poor life, to try to find some meaning and beauty, perhaps rescue something from her self-imposed obscurity-- martyrize her anti-heroics and pedestrian eccentricities, make some attempt of poetry out of the raw materials of disease and squalor.  Then-- like the rest of us, I will wait for my hour to look Death in the eye and say.. Remember me?  This is what I have done.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Ad Lib

A late-winter snowstorm gives us all a chance to breathe-- and even though I knew this one was going to be a let-down, I still took the vacation day and binged on TV films.  On the heels of International Women's Day, I've thought a lot the past week about women in the arts.   So my first choice was Within the Whirlwind-- the autobiography of Evgenia Ginzburg, a professor of literature who was sentenced for 18 years to a gulag in Siberia during Stalin's reign of terror.  Ginzburg, played poignantly by Emily Watson, managed to survive inhumane conditions of extreme cold and starvation and-- a little like Patty Hearst, I couldn't help thinking-- fell in love with the prison staff doctor.

The other film was from 1975-- an early Chantal Akerman work called Jeanne Dielman--  a nearly 4- hour masterpiece showing 3 days in the minute-to-minute life of a middle-class Belgian woman.  Without much dialogue or drama we follow her tedious daily routine--  hours of washing-up, meal prepping, shopping, shoe-shining… occasional baby-watching, and brief daytime prostitution with the same prim, emotionless attitude and clean-up as the housekeeping.  By the third day, subtle small things begin to go awry… and unexpectedly and without drama, she kills her afternoon john.

Evgenia eventually wrote her memoirs which were published abroad and which document her heroism and bravery.  Separated from her sons and her husband, she used her survival instincts; not least of these was her beauty, which appealed to the doctor and earned her better treatment than some of the women inmates.  She was nevertheless selfless and compassionate and courageous.  The film, written and directed by women, celebrates her intelligence, her art and her strength.

Watching Jeanne Dielman, I couldn't help seeing my own mother-- with the perfectly coiffed hair, and the lipstick… the well-tailored skirts and nylons and elegant shoes--- putting on aprons, gloves--- delicately scrubbing the stove, cutting vegetables, setting the table, pouring coffee, straightening papers, emptying ashtrays…  the daily shopping trips dressed in fashionable coats and scarves… the relentless claustrophobia of domesticity that made me swear every single day I would never get married.

Obviously the act of murder was a kind of emotional breakdown, a disconnect… a shocking climax to a drawn-out hour-by-hour monotony with very little insight into her psyche or mental state.  It is hard to even feel sympathy for her…  and then it ends,  with the heroine sitting quietly at the kitchen table, fresh blood on her hands and mouth.

What we are capable of-- we women, what is expected of us-- it is a different trajectory than that of men, no matter how equal or even superior we may be in so many ways.  We have children, we clean up, we care for sick friends with much more frequency.  We rebel and rock and roll, but so many of us inherit these expectations from our mothers, and we carry out these chores with or without resentment-- because it's simpler to do it than to ignore and feel incomplete.  It's part of being a woman, to let things go sometimes--- children are watching or listening, and we learn to gloss over with silence things that should be argued or protested.

I visited with a woman today who is clinically depressed, who is young and lovely and intelligent and cannot seem to accept being on the brink of middle age… even though her husband is devoted and loving, and she is 20 years younger than I am; she is blind to what we see, and unable to find her footing.  For some of us, life events intervene and force us to appreciate whatever years we have as a gift-- as luxury.  We stop obsessing about our own image and find our context.  For others, the mirror is their confidante.  They scrutinize and compare, worship physical beauty and attractiveness as their gauge of worth.  The culture seems to encourage this.  It also encourages people who are apparently blind to their own image, and deaf to their personal noise.    I watched a photo shoot in Harlem on Friday-- a woman dressed in a blue fur and a blonde wig with way too much make-up… voguing and pulling up her dress.  What version of beauty is this?  What role model for the young girls passing with their schoolbags and plaid skirts on the way home from the Sojourner Truth school?

I am old enough to realize I now am what I do, what I create.  The 'I' visual is no longer relevant or iconic or memorable.  I am one of the army of women who try to find meaning in their life and leave something behind for our daughters and little sisters.  Chantal Akerman suicided in her mid 60's.  She was depressed; perhaps she'd run out of ideas-- she'd been teaching in Harlem.  Today I long to speak to her, but can only find her work.  It seems important that I watched Jeanne Dielman and that it was shown without commercial interruption on a free television station.  It is difficult to explain to my young friend that these things are enough for me-- that the slow snow day of solitude and black coffee and rice is fine, but maybe not enough for tomorrow when I will resume my place by the typewriter, by the window of my brain and the weather of my ambition, where I will avoid the feminine prison of domesticity and self-devaluation by forging my own path forward, scripting as I go.