Monday, October 7, 2019

Old Faithful

I have recently confessed to a clandestine summer television binge-- and trying hard to sit through one of the final dull episodes of The Affair last night it began to feel like just that-- an affair with these shows-- the initial attraction, late-night meetings, staying way too long, being entertained by things which are normally boring... then the long-haul 'meat' of the relationship-- the drama and path-windings-- finally to the denouement, the sense of routine and obligation, on to the cringeworthy and downright head-shaking disengagement.

What I did take from this 'relationship' was a geographical affection-- the feeling of Montauk in winter-- the coast I'd befriended as a child-- the nostalgia and sad permanence of the sea as a neighbor, a companion-- the one that outlives us all.  My 'affair' with Montauk even prompted a quick  trip to Provincetown last weekend where I also found a piece of my past remarkably untouched.

I am of an age now where any trip or visit could be the last one I will make to that place; my activity is limited and decreased by circumstances... I find my compelling obligations and callings are those of the mind.  Television has been a guilty pleasure but it was free for some months, and it was all the vacation I could really muster.  At 4 AM Sunday morning,  I came across the movie 'Unfaithful'.  Now all my girlfriends have watched this many times; most of us have gone through phases during marriages or long-term relationships where we were either tempted or forayed... but here was the very quintessence of ambivalence-- with the very beautiful Diane Lane and Olivier Martinez-- love, passion-- the choice, when we had it, and at this moment in life, the choices are much fewer.

Coming in at the halfway point of the film, I couldn't help drawing the obvious parallels with The Affair-- the infidelity, the 'price' everyone always seems to pay as though there is a judgment and a punishment (Fatal Attraction, etc...)... that violating trust is a kind of crime which not only does not pay, but brings tragedy.  Like The Affair, what drew me into this viewing was the 'place'... New York as it was in the late 90's still resembling my version of the city: the homeyness of the loft-- the piles of books... the Soho streets, the taxis... the Strand, as it was... the old stacks before it was turned into a department store.  I tearfully recalled Friday nights sitting in the dusty basement with children (their tiny category was relegated to the rear cellar, near the proofs section) looking at books opened on the floor-- the occasional mouse running through.  Also remarkable in these late-90's productions-- no cell phones... the poetry of the answering machine.  It occurred to me that in our current culture these random meetings would not even take place--- everyone is so involved in their little screen, they do not connect with human opportunities.

When I saw Unfaithful in 1999 it was in a cinema-- on a rare night when I had a babysitter, my young boyfriend and I would go out-- have a dinner downtown, see as many films as we could manage-- be just a couple.  We used to hold hands during movies... and I remember at the end of this one I whispered to him that I had something to tell him... I can't recall now what it was, but in that moment, I felt his pulse quicken-- not just quicken but speed-- and his breath came fast, as though we was in full-blown panic mode.  I realized my very young boyfriend was terrified I was going to confess some infidelity.   And it was that moment-- that heart-racing, fragile moment-- when I knew he was truly in love, that of all partners and husbands-- he would never be unfaithful.  This was the way, as we say now, he was 'wired'.

Of course this, too, is now part of my past.  I am quite beyond my passionate love affairs and much more committed to the work I need to do while I still can-- music, writing, poetry-- these are my companions.  I have never been completely faithful to any one man, and while I have been difficult and struggled with my tendency to outgrow things, I have tried to be honest and not hurt people more than they hurt themselves.  What I now realize, after failing at these relationships-- and I tried twice to change countries for lovers and husbands-- is I have been in love with New York City--  maybe less so with this current version-- but it permeates my songwriting, my poetry, my dreams and personal iconography.  My heart sings here as nowhere else and while I have a sense of past and the people who have strayed in and out of my apartments and life-- it is the place-- fickle as it is, changeable and cruel, beautiful and hideous, sublime and filthy-- to which, in my way, I have been faithful.

Amen.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Un-combed

My friend is in the unenviable state of medical purgatory.  Many of us have been there; more of us will be, as the years accelerate.  While she anxiously awaits a full diagnosis, she must contend not only with perceived symptoms but with the unperceived.  Then there are the additional pains and discomforts brought on by torturous probing and exploratory protocol, because when you are helpless and punctured, they 'bring it on' irregardless.  All, presumably, in the name of an appropriate treatment-- a cure-- which is several steps more complicated than simply naming the disease.

Despite our compulsive identifying and classifying of things, we do not all fall into a simple solution box.  We sit in hospital waiting rooms with hundreds of bodies and faces that do not much resemble one another.  Besides obvious crutches and bandages, we know little of what ails our neighbors.  Sometimes our neighbors do not even know what ails them.  And behind the physical manifestations there are our emotional labyrinths-- our panics and anxieties, our deep childhood wounds which fester or recede only to assume center-stage when we feel weak.  All of the self-help and proverbs--  even religion-- are suddenly not enough to guide us through a sleepless night of crisis.

When I grew up in the 1950's parents weren't as 'hands-on' as parents of the 21st century are expected to be.  They left strollers outside the supermarket; we walked ourselves to school as small children, and played without supervision in parks.  Things happened-- even relatives spoke and handled us inappropriately, but no one mentioned these things.  We were cared for, but I never had that sense that I could talk intimately with my Mom about things that bothered me... yes, we had our friends, but few of us had that sense of emotional safety.  We grew up and music was like our confidante; many of us used sex and substances for comfort.

I raised my son with attention to a parental safety zone.  I wanted him to be independent, but I also wanted him to feel confident that his needs--emotional and physical-- were being met.  Yes, there were rough patches of infancy-- colic, bad phases-- but he was a relatively easy baby.  He spoke words at 12 months and expressed his needs as best he could.    As a 24/7 single parent this made a difference; I had no help and worked most nights doing gigs, while he was sleeping.  He rarely woke to notice I was absent.  One night a neighbor was sleeping over while I worked... he woke up... she gave him a water bottle and put him back to bed.  But he kept calling-- asking her for a comb.  "Comb.  He needs a comb,' he implored-- using the third person, as he did.  So my neighbor kept taking his little blue baby comb out of the drawer and fixing his hair.  But he would shake his head and repeat.  When I called during break to check in, I could hear him crying.  She put him on the phone --'Mama-- COMB'... he was saying...  At last it occurred to me... we had a bedtime ritual, after I put him in the crib... I would read him some rhyme from a huge old coverless anthology of verse... so I recited on the phone some things I knew from Robert Louis Stevenson-- the Swing poem, the Land of Counterpane...  and immediately he calmed and curled up with his little finger.  Poem, not comb.  It was comical... but also I realized it was his little bedtime 'need'... his comfort.  Fortunately I figured that one out.

My baby girl was born with a fatal heart defect.  Neither the doctors nor I were able to diagnose and repair the hole through which she disappeared.  Her needs, unlike those of her brother, were unreachable.  They haunt me still, because when we love someone, we adopt their pain.  She and I had barely been separated; I grieve daily not only for her angelic soul, but for my failure to provide her comfort.

My son is a man and his needs are a lot more complex.  Tonight we spoke about Antonio Brown and the dissolution of his once-promising career.  I always feel so much empathy for these athletes-- knowing how much they put in day after day-- the sacrifices, the sweat and training.  Then they are thrust into a spotlight, showered with sums of money that are almost beyond their ability to manage, preyed upon by media, women, fame parasites.  And once they taste this kind of celebrity-- well, there is no normal. What are his needs now? He is in the midst of meltdown mode.

Our needs change as we grow older-- they increase, and then in ways they decrease.  As adults, we figure out how to provide our own needs-- not to depend on partners, friends and children. But when we are ill, all bets are off.  A day without pain is a gift; a successful treatment is a reward.  We paddle upstream hopefully toward some version of recovery.  But first, this requires a proper diagnosis-- for someone to really listen to our symptoms and complaints, and devise a medical course.  For this, we are at the mercy of professionals whom we pray are astute and on point. As for emotional symptoms-- I have friends who have been seeing a shrink for decades.  Some have regressed into childhood memories and early trauma to encounter their younger, less damaged self.  Does this help?  At this age, no one is going to rock us to sleep or read us nursery rhymes out loud.  Still, we can try to listen.  Loneliness is easily diagnosable; fear and anger less so, but we can check in and listen and offer not to deliver our signature brownies or cookies, but to see what they need--  a clean stove or some menial errand or maybe to simply hear a caring voice tell them how much they mean to us-- that we are not just who we are, but who we have been-- with our canes and limps and aches and scars.  This life is a package deal and we all get our unraveling at some point.  So share the wealth, whatever that may mean, with someone who needs it today.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

And Justice For All...

This September-11th week I'm called upon to fulfill my official civic obligation and serve possibly my last stint of jury duty.  This time it's Federal Court-- where the jurors' waiting room with its high ceilings and wall of windows is way cheerier than the claustrophobic quarters of civic and criminal court, as I recall.  The rule in Federal Court, unlike the others, is no-technology-- no laptops, phones or tablets. You'd think this would encourage socializing among the juror pool... but besides rustling of newspapers and the occasional roll-call or announcement from the desk microphones, there was nearly no conversation.

Except for me... somehow I struck up a temporary rapport with a young man behind me in the building security line, and we stayed together, like newly orientating freshman, for the entire first day. We talked-- we shared-- drank coffee,  amused ourselves-- spoke about family and children-- college, musical taste, films, sports-- and stayed awake throughout an uneventful long day of waiting.  Seven hours with a stranger, minus lunch, when I suggested we separate to give him a break from my company.  We ended up ironically running into one another and sitting out the final 30 minutes of lunch at an outdoor table, talking.

Scanning the motley crowd of New Yorkers, I am struck by the irony that by mere coincidence of place, it is we who may decide the fate of an individual or group who happens to be on the weekly docket. What qualifies us, besides citizenship, to pronounce and determine this way?  Do we suddenly sprout ethical wings and rise to some occasion?  We flawed and imperfect humans who make errors of judgment every single day, order the wrong sandwich, forget to phone friends, miss appointments?

Standing in the middle of Foley Square at lunch, I am a little nostalgic.  During my first experience as a juror, the defending lawyer was 30-ish (old, in my eyes) and developed a mad crush on me... he'd look my way and blush as he gave his depositions.  In the court elevator he handed me a note asking me to have dinner as soon as the trial ended, explaining he wasn't permitted to speak otherwise.  I guess it was flattering-- looking back, I had my own agenda then, and my own constantly shifting plans. The whole experience was like a party--  a group of us formed a little clique-- we shared ideas and music during lunch;  I had a little walkman in those days and headphones... we were all happy about missing work and went out to a bar afterward.  We joked about being on the right side of the court barriers, at least for now.  For years, these people came to my gigs. Today I can't remember a single one of them-- one was Jose-- I'd have to look back in my ancient phonebooks.

Less vivid were my pre-marital registry visits to the adjacent civil courthouse, and one divorce.  I remember climbing those stairs, the two of us, to mutually agree to our failure as a couple-- no argument or litigation... Today a funny couple dressed in street clothes was pinning cheap white veils to their heads and taking selfies... a marriage of love or convenience. Who knows?  'I give them six months' a friend used to pronounce every time he saw a wedding party.

Maybe these civic marriages are taken less seriously... or maybe moreso because they lack the distraction of pomp and party.  I personally was way young and made hasty decisions.  I had slews of boyfriends along the way and never really considered or even knew that each of my two young husbands had summarily dumped a decent partner when they met me.  What kind of future did that predict?  My version of commitment was at best under-done.  I somehow knew I hadn't mated for life.  Still, the disintegration of these relationships is painful and familiar.  Our Prince Charmings grow weary and bored; one difficult night-- or you are late from a gig-- they go out and drink and blink their eyes at flirty women who do not inspect their hands for rings.  I, too, found myself inappropriately bonding with band members and artists who confided and begged.  My role as a wife never acquired the habit of fidelity, the ritual of one-bed/one-mate. What wrecked me was the aftermath-- the reality that this person who'd been your absolute intimate-- the left hand of your pair of gloves-- was becoming a stranger, was whispering into a new pair of ears, walking down the aisle with someone else.  Love is the prize of life; then the death of intimacy is lethal and cruel.  Many divorce cases mitigated in these courts are the sad attempts to punish one another for the loss of something that can never be regained, only recalled.  There are pre-nups but no real insurance for the missing emblems of love; there are designated thieves and burglars, but the real culprit is time-- familiarity, lack of trust, resentment... failure.

If I knew then what I knew now... most likely I would have made the same poor choices.  In four years-- my next jury-service date-- they inform me I will be old enough to opt out.  I now know this will pass all-too-quickly.  In my twenties, four years was a virtual lifetime. Coming out of Federal Court I wonder if I am any wiser or more qualified than the young people in this room. One thing I notice-- they don't seem to be having nearly the fun we all had back in the 1970's and 80's.  They are all reaching constantly for their absent phones like an involuntary reflex rather than exploring the experience-- or trying to be cool.  As I said, my friend and I were the only 'talkers' of note... even in the bathrooms on a break, no one spoke; no one laughed.

Today I miss my friend a little-- they placed us on different panels. Still, Monday we bonded and shared.   I am old enough to be his mother, but we exchanged small intimacies and anecdotes and a few laughs and it punctuated the enforced boredom of waiting.  Jason from Irvington-- I never asked his last name, paid little attention to the roll calls... although I know how he liked his coffee and what little league position his son played, his little girl's favorite Disney songs.  The irony of New York-- the five degrees thing-- he might end up somehow reading this blog and thinking I'm a crazy old bohemian bassist-stalker.  Forty years ago we might have exchanged numbers-- or not.  It was like a two-act play, complete with intermission.

These days most of my acquaintances are past not future... here as elsewhere I am among the oldest in the room-- only one or two others, with canes, are close.  No lawyer will ever notice me on the panel, no one will blush or wink or smile or hand me a note in the elevator.  This suits me now somehow... as though the relentless justice of time is finally served.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Mrs. Jones


Sunday marked the second anniversary of my poor Mom's passing.  My son and I went to visit the gravesite, to pay our respects.  I dread these visits; they are unbearably sad for me and I am reminded by the military footstone which marks my father's adjacent resting place of her lifelong uncomplaining 'curtsey' to his rigidity.  We walked over the grassy hillside where she had been laid to rest presumably for eternity, where she has already endured eight seasons' passing in the loneliness of the deceased.

The cemetery upstate is like a city of tombs; it reminds us how the dead far outnumber the living in this world.  On the day we visited it was late afternoon and quiet-- no funerals, no steam shovels, no cement-laying, stonecutters or even gardeners.  We brought a bluetooth speaker and played some Frank Sinatra for my poor old Mom who'd begged to be cremated, because she couldn't bear the thought of being in a box.  While I tried my best to fight for her final wish, I was overruled by petty family tyranny.  After Frank, we played Billy Paul's 'Me and Mrs. Jones'...

In 1972 my Mom was still elegant and beautiful.  I'd come home from college and she'd be baking a pie or pulling some magical concoction of cakey lightness from her old 1940's oven.  The gardeners and workmen would hang around hoping for a slice... they loved her, and she flirted in a tiny way with their reverence for her kitchen skills.  When she was alone upstairs she'd sing along to the radio-- 'we've got a thing going on'... the song seemed to be in extra-heavy rotation that summer-- and she'd blush when I caught her.  She even bought the sheet music and tried to play it on the piano.  My Dad was always darkly burdened and serious.  They didn't use the word depression lightly in those days, but he suffered and she never complained.  That summer she was still young enough to understand longing, and passion.  She was a wonderful wife-- an enabler and a team-player... but the Billy Paul song, and the daily workmen's coffee breaks were her little window onto some kind of womanly heaven.

For some reason the bluetooth got stuck and kept repeating the song over and over--- loud and resonant over the hills.  No one came out to scold... and after three or four plays even my son's mood lightened.  I buried a few small trinkets, as I do-- an old Egyptian scarab I bought as a child from the Smithsonian Museum, a button from my son's prep-school blazer-- things to comfort her.  'Is Grandma a skeleton?' my son asked, as though he were in grade school.  It made me shiver.  I'm not sure how they dressed her when she was buried; my sister had the purse and called the shots.  I wish I could have had the closure of spreading her ashes in the places she'd loved, and not the deep remorse of being unable to carry out her final private wish.   Such is life--  and the relentless tide of death which carries us all out to the darkest depths of some universal sea where we are all theoretically 'one'-- infinite grist for some cosmic mill.

I remember my mother assuring me as a young child: God takes care of things in your mouth.  I’d fallen and split my lip open… a few days later a teacher sent me to the nurse—it seemed my bottom teeth had poked through the gash… no, I did not blame God… but maybe that was the first broken promise.  What are promises anyway?  A marriage vow?  A prenup? Like my college honor code agreement-- a kind of contract which by its very existence assumes it will be challenged or violated?

This has obsessed me lately-- walking the streets,  relentless monologue in my head, the confessions and titles-- a hurdy-gurdy monkey cranking out lyrics, pulling on my ear... filling in the spaces.  Jesus-- give me structure--a blank-line stability-- a simple page.  On what can we rely? In my Mom's case not even her last request was honored-- or, more likely, she lacked the strength to demand such a thing in the context of her old-fashioned view of male-dominated decisions and one-way unconditional love.  I was her daughter; it was not filial love she really craved and I only wish I could have witnessed her in that cafe being indulged as Mrs. Jones. 

We are growing old now, my friends and I.  No one is going to kneel down and cup our face in their hands and reassure us that anything is going to be okay.  We ricochet from day to day, from narrow escape to close call-- entering medical offices to be handed a grim prognosis no matter how hard we have worked, how we have either abused or cared for our bodies.  My facebook friends post and celebrate-- and suddenly there is some ominous news or shock.  First it was our parents; now we ourselves.  A few have moved from the city-- retired, escaped, become sustainable farmers and nature-worshippers in some enviably remote agrarian paradise-- and suddenly they, too, are asking for help, for donations.  Nature  has no favorites; we are all at her mercy when she stretches her limbs or opens her global mouth and lets us have it.

The denouement is not nearly as interesting as the build-up; life gets thin and brittle as we age as do our longings and desire.  In the end it is 'missing' that so often replaces love.  I miss my young Mom-- the one who baked and sang and dreamed.  It is that version I choose to imagine buried with her passions and memories on that hill waiting patiently for her daily romantic rendezvous long after her great grandchildren are gone.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Nine (nein)

For me there has always been something about the number '9' that brings a kind of recognition.  Yes, it is my birthday 'number', but that always felt more like a synchronicity than a reason for numeral kinship.  I liked the way it looked, the way it mimicked the six, the way it embraced the perfect three threes...  To turn nine years old on the ninth was childhood-sacred (I remember when my little boy turned seven on the seventh).  I was a winter baby and my parties, in those rougher weather-years, were often cancelled because of snow, or flu or chickenpox epidemics.  My Mom made a funny tradition of celebrating my 'half-birthday' on August 9ths.  She'd give me a half-cupcake, half of a card, one bookend-- things like that.

On this day in 1962 I turned 9 1/2... it was a poignant time: the Beatles were getting ready to change pop music.... Kennedy our president.  I was away at summer camp-- a time for reflection, nostalgia, some suppressed homesickness-- and a realization that I 'needed' the city.  I was urban-anemic.   Marilyn Monroe had just suicided which touched me;  Arthur Miller was my great uncle on a side neither of us cared to own, but it made the drama 'real'.   I was already touched with pre-teen 'noir' and heard melodies in my head: Soldier Boy... Johnny Angel... She Cried.  At home, my Mom was listening to Moon River and realizing her housewife dreams were going to have to be supplemented with other things.

At camp we put on an elaborate production of the Wizard of Oz.  I had won the part of Dorothy... we spent long weeks rehearsing and my parents were allowed to visit for the performances.  They filmed everything, although the soundtrack somehow is missing.  The video footage that remains is shocking for me-- I remember being inside that person, but to look that innocent-- with the braids and the little sailor dress-- seems unlikely.  There is a shot of my sister in the front row-- weeping, as I sang Somewhere Over the Rainbow.  It is the last incident I can recall of my sister showing any heartfelt emotion.  For years I tried to process this as evidence of love, or at least a kind of soul.... but it sits there, like an old tin can in a puddle.

I thought about my half-birthday today--- the way time is telescoping and tumbling forward.   Despite the marks we make, like bent pages in a book, it doesn't much change things.  August was a sad month as a child-- it was full of moons and drifting rainclouds-- drawn-out sunsets and lonely nights at a lake or a beach where I didn't really belong.  I craved library bookshelves and museum walls and subway noise... I missed phantom and real boyfriends... my turntable, solitude.  My Mother died two Augusts ago with little understanding of the world, toward the end.  It is a loss I will never overcome.

The events of this week have tainted August forever for so many families.  On a day when even global warming seems to have taken a breath to let us fathom sorrow... I find it harder to process the relentless juggernaut of violent hatred that seems to breed from the selfish nature of this political climate.  It is as though every senseless act of cruelty and killing has numbed some of us rather than incited reaction.  As a human here-- an aging human-- I feel small and unimportant.  All around me, daily-- and certainly on our screens, in conjunction with these shootings-- there are acts of heroism-- human instincts that are pure and good-- and yet the screenshot remains...

There was yet another story this morning of an 'unknown' songwriter suing a rockstar for copyright infringement.  Three notes, it is, this time... as though the clich├ęs and dumbing down of pop music is not enough,  there is competition to own this lack of originality.  I've written songs and had several of them 'pirated'.... but what is the point, really?  There will be lawyers-- money, youtube comparisons and mash-ups.  And which one is better?  Both of them seem equally derivative and weak... just one is well produced, with all the bells and whistles, the make-up and fashion and the machine of publicity and social media.  So some poor unsuccessful singer wants a small piece.  Let him eat cake, I say-- a piece of the half-cake I used to get on this day when I was small.

During the brief moments I made it outdoors today, the Somewhere Over the Rainbow melody came to me, walking along the park after a quick storm-- my August souvenir.  Like it or not, it was a song-- written for a story which I knew well from bedtime readings... but with a silhouette-- an identity.  Things had some identity then-- a core-- a reason, a unique 'shape'.  There was no cutting and pasting-- you had to stand up and sing-- live.  You had to type letters and schoolwork and page through books and run and jump rope and learn how to save people in the water.

My son's basketball team won the championship.  Yes-- in the park in Brooklyn, on the asphalt, with hoops and balls and their brave sportsmanship... they fought and won.  Aside from the on-court soundtrack of Hip Hop, and the sneakers, it could have been anytime, USA.  What I felt was their breathtaking heart, their body and soul and drive all at once, jumping and leaping and catching and passing and dunking... the '9' of them, I call it... no tricks, no twitter-- just sweat and flesh and talent-- real talent that will ultimately dissolve into the tough universe of athletic anonymity.  I see men every day-- tall men sitting out in their collapsible chairs along Lenox Ave... with their canes and their injuries.   They, too, once ruled the courts, briefly... never reaped enough to get them out of the projects... and I sense the shadow of the power of '9' in them, too-- maybe for them a 5 or an 8... but they had it.

The half year until my next number will pass as quickly as a galactic second.  What I will manage to do with this is a mystery.  I can almost guarantee I will witness violence, will lose someone dear-- something dear.  I can only promise I will try to stand on my 'core', I will try to create my own templates and support the good of others.  I will be the 'ninest' I can be; it seems so simple-- if only it were... if only we could find some common starting line-- some core, some championship...  to take our individual pulse at the half... and make the rest count.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

G(RACE)

Saturdays have become classic movie nights in my household.  Either post-gig or not, it's still a work day and I try to clear my mental clipboard in the 3-5 AM time slot watching something from either my or someone else's past.  The television somehow offers plenty of quality films, without pay-for-view.  So last week I picked The Great White Hope.  I'd been fortunate enough to have seen that on Broadway, with the larger-than-life James Earl Jones, and Jane Alexander-- live-- in the lead roles, well more than 30 years ago.  It was brilliant-- resonant-- devastating.

Yes, I've been re-reading (the great) James Baldwin... Richard Wright-- but watching the theatre version of hard-edged racial tragedy was jarring and upsetting in a way I'd not expected.  In context of the current discussion of reparation and debt... everyone needs to go back and re-evaluate their African-American history course.  The juggernaut of the 'Me Too' movement stirred up some memory of that book title (acknowledged in a Lennon/Ono song) Woman as Nigger.  Even my laptop did not want to type out that phrase.

Now I'm a white woman with a prosecutable Me-Too incident of my own-- a life-warping, hideous, morally reprehensible, humiliating disgrace I have never brought much to light because, as we women well know, the procedural justice process can double-indemnify the victim.  We are sole witness... testifier, prosecutor, injured party-- and we set ourselves up, in the legal system, for the pillory.  Ask Robert Mueller.  But the ethnic and massive cultural wrongs against a group of people brought here as captives-- against their will--- enslaved, mistreated, and then left-- misplaced, without tools and respect in a foreign country-- unable to go back to their homeland, deprived of comfort and dignity-- and identifiable and stigmatized by physical characteristics that were interpreted by status quo as 'less-than-equal'-- well, it's a disgrace beyond comprehension. For most of us in the current culture where Beyonce is American 'royalty'... Hip Hop dominates the music industry-- fashion-- this is not simple.

Maybe the largest lesson of the Trump presidency-- and I see it as a huge disgusting presidential finger in my face every day-- is the survival of racism.  It's still everywhere.. in spite... despite.
I grew up a relatively privileged little white girl in New York... I had an Irish nanny some of the time, but like most middle-class households in the 50's and 60's.. we had a black housekeeper.  I've written about her many times-- more than a caretaker, she took me to church, sang to me-- loved me in a way no white mother ever did... I used to pray I'd turn black and live with her.  I envied the kids in the projects-- they had a community-- they hung out summer nights playing ball wth friends-- they barbecued and every night seemed like a party.  It seemed so 'safe'.  Little did I understand.

I married a black man.  My first husband-- yes, he was kind of a rockstar.  I'd never dated or been intimate with anyone but white men-- and it was different-- the chemistry was undeniable and the ceremony was like a dare.  I was actually surprised not one member of my family showed up at the wedding.  My parents had seemed like liberal democrats... no, they had no black friends; the soft boundary between me and our housekeeper made my mother nervous, I could see that;  I never told when I went to hang in her 'hood.  And as an aside-- no one in her hood ever made me feel unwelcome or different.  She referred to me as 'My Aimesy' and I loved it.

Was I trying to prove something?  I was not.  I loved the guy.  I was disowned by my family.  They clearly and verbally pronounced that they had one less daughter-- the Princeton/Harvard daughter.  Why was I surprised?  This was bigotry and racism in my own little clan.  It was real.  Was it difficult?  It was.  Even in Harlem people looked at us funny.  He had dreadlocks then and that was not part of Northern American black culture.  We went on a car trip and people in rural New England yelled out their windows at us-- 'Bob Marley go home'.  My girlfriends asked me inappropriate clinical questions about physical traits and ignorant narratives.  I learned things.  Among his people I felt comfortable-- but it was clear they would have preferred dark skin.  We struggled with the normal marital difficulties of rock musicians touring-- separations and misunderstandings... there was no communication technology in those days... just a rotary telephone and letters.

In the end we divorced... yes, we are still very, very  good friends; I am godmother to his 'black' children with his black wife.  I next married a British journalist-- couldn't have been much whiter-- and he was a 'dog' of a husband-- a cheating, hard drinking rogue who never paid a ha'penny of child support.  In the end-- a white non-present baby-Daddy with ghetto behavior.  Do I have the right to talk about racism, bigotry, issues?  To draw conclusions? I do not.

My son who is white British-American might have preferred to have been born black.  He was immersed in basketball culture and Hip Hop from an early age.  He was an incredibly talented young athlete-- was recruited and acknowledged-- and once snapped at me that he had zero chance of becoming an NBA player because of his color.  Not true, but it was his teenaged truth; he was occasionally the only white boy in the better leagues.  His friends are racially diverse in a way that should be normal here in our country.  He was raised just a few blocks from Harlem, and I often walk the streets of my James Baldwin world, remembering and fathoming.  The idea of being a cultural icon in those difficult days, where incarceration and physical threat was a constant-- where inequality and injustice was so ingrained no black person could walk safely down his own street.  Where-- then as now-- white authority represented the biggest threat of all.  Life-stopping.

Last week in the rain I went to cash a check at my bank on 126th Street.  They insisted I remove my hoodie... for the cameras.  Me-- an old white lady.  I retorted I had a hole in my head that would make the customers wretch.   In the end, they let it go.  I showed my ID.    I don't know where this fits in, but it sits there on the pile of racial profiling nonsense we all walk among in this century.  If I'd been a young black man I would have kept my mouth shut-- or I might have given the security guard a reason to put me in a fatal chokehold.  I thought about this on the way out-- how I had the freedom to make a disrespectful quip at what I found a ridiculous and inappropriate request.  

Tension has lightened a bit in the 21st century, but it's still there.  It was still there Friday night when I walked uptown to buy groceries and a kid was shadowing me on the street for whatever reason.  I apologized, in my heart, but I crossed the street.  One hour later on my way back, he was handcuffed and bent against a cop car.  Was he guilty?  Was I guilty? Me and my stupid James Baldwin and my compulsive apologies and my love of blues and black men in white T-shirts...

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Promises, Promises

When my Mom was alive, we had this annual personal New Year's Eve ritual. Wherever I was-- wild party, gig (usually), even at college or in El Salvador (once in the 1970's), I'd call her up and she would promise (yes, promise) that this was going to be the 'year of years, that brilliant things were going to happen, blessings fall like magic stars and the fairy-tale would come true.'  Something like this.  I would hang up and feel great about my future.  It was a kind of spiritual medicine.

I'm not sure if it was those childhood experiences in Holy Family Church with my Irish nanny, or the osmotic indoctrination by my Italian Catholic neighbors who warned daily of mortal sins and an eternity in hell, but I took my promises seriously.  Most of my friends, and my son, will testify that if I have promised something, I never fail them.  Not that this has not cost me a great deal of angst and often absurd attachment to things I held together with wires and nails or needles and thread-- safety pins, pie dough.  Cakes baked on a campfire, gifts sewn by hand, trips to nowhere at great expense, and some pain and tough rehabilitation.

Not so the rest of this world.  People like me, people who take words seriously, are in the minority.  The fake news is old news for us; we have been not just disappointed and duped but personally injured by liars.  'Campaign-promise' has acquired the status of crocodile-tears.  It's something you say to get what you want, like all those men in our lives who swore up and down their eternal love.

I promise I will be back, I tell the homeless man who is nagging me for a sandwich again.   All I have is foodstamps and he smashed his hands again, hitting the wall to relieve his bi-polar mania; they are bandaged and the jar of peanut butter and loaf of bread is unmanageable today.  So I walk the 21 blocks home, wrap up a few in plastic, walk back in the stifling evening heat.  No one ever comes back, baby, he says.  Not from the final walk home, I joke...  but this time-- well, I did.  I promised.

My baby boy was born amidst some turmoil in my marriage-- the devastating realization that although my English husband solemnly promised to love me 'to the exclusion of all others', this was not to be the case.  Forget the 'till death do us part'.  No one really expects that these days... but after producing his heir (yes, I'd promised to marry him and have his child) which he'd promised to care for so I could continue my career path-- my gigs and recording contracts-- he was montaging into an alcoholic mess of irresponsibility and drama.  I looked at that baby, the first night home-- me, who'd had to sit in on the 'new fathers' class at the hospital where you diaper a doll-- and I promised him-- whatever it is that is bothering you, whatever is making you cry-- I will figure this out.  I will do it.  At that moment he was on top of a vibrating clothes dryer in the laundry room (a remedy for colic) and he seemed to open his little eyes and relax.

Not that I am a saint by any means; I am a writer and a reader and I respect 'the word'.  I suppose God never promised anything; he spoke, he acted (or failed to act).  Promises are mortal things.  Oaths of office and swear-ins, vows and contracts are human inventions which are necessary in a world that assumes the eventuality of falsehood and failure.  Our president is a walking ball of tangled yarns-- the elephant-lie in every room, the cardboard cartoon character with a skin costume and an unremovable wig.  What is this country if we cannot apprehend its signature villain, trap a crazed animal and keep its prey safe?  No one promised us goodness from the government.  Some of us made these assumptions when we were small.  Our first-grade history teacher read the tale of the first George W. confessing to chopping down a tree; we grew up thinking this was not just presidential but 'precedential'.

From my college graduation, I was forced by my tough father to commit to an old-school major-medical policy.  It covered anything the standard hospitalization didn't... and built in was an annuity to begin at 65, life insurance.  I paid into it every year.  The premiums increased.  I complained.  My agent was a woman named Mildred Kornhauser.  She worked from home-- from her voice, I had an image of a Joyce Carol Oates type.  She convinced me every year-- these policies were obsolete after 1975.  They were air-tight and irrevocable.  The company was The Equitable.  It could have been on the PanAm building.

My friends know how I struggled through the single-parent years.  How we had no vacations, no movies, no dinners (occasional Happy Meal on a holiday), how we walked-- how I worked, how I picked up and dropped off every single day, managed to barter some skills for camps and sports programs... worked nights while he slept, etc.  But I paid my premiums.  For 45 years?  I called Mildred Kornhauser, we negotiated, raised deductibles... but I kept up, knew I'd have a little security as I grew older-- the comfort of extra medical assistance-- private nursing, a better network of physicians for me and my growing boy.  The annuity.

When The Equitable was bought by AXA, Mildred promised no change in anything.  After all, the policy was irrevocable.  But several years ago... I was informed that it was discontinued.  Just like that.  The AXA executives party in the Hamptons and on Donald Trump's golf courses; but me-- my annuity vanished.  Some nights I lay awake and calculate... in the 40-some-odd years I paid in something like $250,000.  Mildred Kornhauser, God rest her soul-- was dead.  She probably earned very little in her lifetime-- I always pictured her wearing an old bathrobe and eating a packaged donut dipped in Maxwell House when we spoke.   My new agent was an electronic prompt.

And oh, yes, there was a class action suit.  I received exactly $572.  Yes.  Annuity?  I will spend my senior years the way I spent single motherhood--- lying awake, thanking God for health, praying, wondering how I will manage to keep my home, wandering from supermarket to supermarket, stretching out my food stamps the way these homeless men cannot seem to do, and I don't blame them.

So when I saw the negotiated Facebook fine of $5 billion... well.. who gets that money? The $2.5 billion remaining after lawyers have taken their share, and closer to $1 billion by the time everything else is deducted... certainly not anyone who was actually hurt or compromised? And the Equifax settlement?  The company that promised security and protection but violated your privacy?  Would Mark Zuckerberg even notice a $5 billion debit in his account? maybe his accountant would.  Maybe Equifax would send him a text-alert.  It reminded me.  Equifax.... Equitable...

For those of us who pay on time, raise our children without support, carry on responsibilities, take out the trash for our handicapped neighbors and feel committed to our life projects, however much this costs in emotional and financial sacrifice... what reward is there?  The universal promise of death lies ahead for us all... And yet there is the soft blanket of the word when someone whispers it in our ear.  Yes, it changes our chemistry, that word-- however it has been beaten and distorted so that its meme might look like a question mark, however it has been infused with killing irony and a unique kind of weapon. I would still give anything to have my Mother's voice come through my phone as I did one July night when the fireworks reminded her of New Year's Eve.  I must call my daughter Amy, she must have thought.   It made sense-- through her dementia and confusion... in the heat, she left a message promising a wonderful year.