Friday, May 22, 2020

Waiting

One of my ex-boyfriends had a song I heard him perform only once; the chorus went Wai-hay-hay-hay...way-hay-hay-hay-hay-hay- tinngggg...  It went on.. not easy to sing on key unless you're sort of a yodeler...  but somehow some version of it has been repeating in my head.   Here we are, nearly in unison, across the world-- taking one of those 'breaths' a brilliant conductor can orchestrate and control by simply holding up his baton... while the brass, the strings, the woodwinds-- they all freeze in mid-breath or mid-stroke... waiting.

We spend a good part of our lives waiting; less so in the 5g internet age where responses are immediate-- goods are located and purchased, conversations anywhere in real-time, deals made, interruptions even possible.  When I was small I waited evenings for my father to turn the corner in his business suit-- he shared a cab and walked the last block or so.  Daddy! we'd yell, joyfully... greeting him just before he'd retire to the den with the scotch-on-the-rocks he'd waited for all day.

And now, the good witch in the story says, 'we must wait'... while the batter magically becomes cake, the oats and water turn into porridge, the pasta softens and curls, coffee brews.  Trees grow and fruit ripens, nested eggs hatch with life, babies are pulled from laboring mothers and childhood begins.  We keep ourselves occupied with schooling and tasks-- with jobs and careers and games and entertainment... while nature cycles on and provides us with most of what we expect.

So what now, as the whole world is paused-- not quite in unison-- for what have we waited?  For a new order?  For a universal decree of mourning?  A mass funeral for those families who have waited many weeks without comfort?  A diminished life for those who have been sickened and not quite recovered? Those who have been wounded and disabled?  A vaccine or cure for something that scarcely existed just six months ago?  A medal of honor for those who perished, who gave their lives unknowingly for some kind of cruel science?  Rewards for the medics and attendants who cared tirelessly and often hopelessly for people who were strangers and became intimates? For society to resume its habits and ways, or to resume with slightly altered protocol?  Will people be kind to one another? Has the waiting tested their patience to the limit?

For me, aside from its homophonic twin, waiting had a certain romance to it.  The 'hardest part', Tom Petty insisted, but I disagree.  The diagnosis is worse-- the verdict, the failure to acquit, the end.  We are all here waiting for death, some have said.... life itself is the waiting.

Ironically, people have learned to stand on line with more patience.  Of course, most have phones and social 'pacifiers' with which to entertain themselves.  I bring a book; I read, look around-- enjoy the air.  Things take much time these days; I waited tonight on a long supermarket line to find the price of chicken had doubled once again.  On my way out, I remarked about it to a woman with greying dreadlocks...  But I'll buy you chicken, baby, she said... in this voice that brought on a flood of tears.  No, no, I reassured her-- I'm fine-- just cranky.  We all need a hug, baby, she said... but we gotta wait for that shit! .... and we laughed.

Like those Biblical patriarchs and Greek heroes-- we wait for love, we wait for death, we wait for God to listen and look and reply.  Most of the time, we are clueless and helpless.  Especially now-- we wait for our mayors and governors to advise us, to coordinate a plan-- to be safe.

The tent hospital in Central Park has been dismantled-- just like that, it vanished almost overnight.  Families of those who did not survive here will have no place to pass and remember their loved one.  It is a grass field, once again.  Will children play here and forget the small successes and tragedies that marked this lawn in the month of April?  

I have learned from experience that grief subsides with the passing of four seasons.  My friend whose husband passed away does not believe this.  You need to get by one birthday, one Christmas, one anniversary, one snowfall, one fireworks display, one turkey dinner... etc.  It is unimaginable but it comes-- the day when you forget for an hour or two, you sleep without a dream, you laugh deeply and uncontrollably.

Walking around the Harlem Meer at dusk tonight, I witness people with masks zig-zagging paths to avoid others.  A few men are maskless by a bench, laughing and smoking, sharing food, touching.  Will we ever trust one another enough to stand shoulder-by-shoulder in crowds?  I passed one of my son's former mentors last night and we spontaneously and courageously clasped hands.  It was so human and healing and strange.  A woman shook her head as though we'd violated some civic law.

I am willing to wait for the next version of future... but not with phone in hand, biding my time.  I am hoping to fill this with some kind of energy-- some kind of work, some kind of prayer... so when the baton lowers,  I will pledge myself forward into the next measure, knowing it is likely to be the 'hardest part'.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A quarantine is not an opportune time for a break-up.  While we hear news reports (and occasional courtyard noise) that warn of spikes in domestic violence, the operative word of shelter-in-place would be 'shelter'.  For some couples, even a honeymoon is claustrophobic... but we have ventured beyond even a long holiday confinement into what feels for some like a prison sentence.

By the Harlem Meer today, I met a young man with a suitcase, desperately phoning everyone he knew. His girlfriend, he told me, kicked him out.  That is cruel punishment at this time when it is not charitable but dangerous to offer your sofa to a stranger.  What did you do, I asked him... and he muttered, through his mask... You mean what DIDN'T I do?  Which I understood to mean not his transgressions but the simple boyish failure to meet his partner's standards.

It's harder to deceive in the unstaged world of home confinement.  We are each other's mirrors; we can't hide behind excuses of 'I'm working' or 'at the gym' when we're having a drink at a bar, flirting a little too long at the office... hanging out... having a cigarette--- enjoying a little personal solitude.  Personally I cringed when one of my guests posted a Thanksgiving dinner photo; my home is my private domain?  But this month alone I have received so many home-broadcast videos, films, demos... if I looked at them all I'd be screen-blind.

At first it was a little novel seeing the usual TV newscasters sitting at their desk... their bookshelves revealing years of research and reading choices.  Most all of them, I've noticed, have the Robert Caro biographies-- the Winston Churchill World War II set (often unread-- mint condition).  I have a place in my heart for the dog-eared spine of Judy Woodruff's Oxford History of the American People; it looks just like mine-- a well-used souvenir of student days.

But the jokes have worn thin... the celebrity cameos seem callow and annoying.  Happy people in their well-stocked places with clean children-- housekeepers, toys, amusement, music-studios, ping-pong tables... showing how homespun they are-- mixing facials out of refrigerator ingredients, trying on costumes... looking 'casual', showing just enough of their personal environment to seem privileged.  Many of them are not aware of how this fuels domestic discontent for viewers.

A few blocks north of me is a woman with 9 large children... and a small 2-bedroom apartment.  Her husband is out of work but trying to drive a rented Uber car to make ends meet.  I have seen her in the grocery store where she stretches out her enormous shopping task into an afternoon activity for the kids who are literally bouncing off walls and turning over carts.  At least there are distractions-- label-reading opportunities.  She has aged five years since the pandemic began.  They have no wifi, she told me-- the kids received BOE tablets but they are useless unless they are 'somewhere'.  The youngest one was sitting in the front of the cart with a box of Confetti Cupcake Poptarts showing me how she knew her colors (well... a couple of them).  At any given moment, at least one child was crying, one stomping his foot.  Her tab was impressive; food stamp allowance for eleven people edges well into 4-figures.  Eating is the narcotic of the poor and under-stimulated.  Her boys have hoop-dreamy eyes and seem to grow by the hour.  She gives me a look-- shakes her head.

I would like to take one or two off her hands... to shelter that poor boy on the bench by the Meer... to even reach out and host a friend.  But we cannot.  I remember a time when I broke up with someone-- and you just wanted the world to end-- you wanted that person to have no life and no friends and no future without you.  We are not supposed to complain in the face of the litany of names listed every day of the pandemic victims... we are supposed to wait on lines and gladly pay twice the value for second-choice staples we need to survive.  Today I waited 35 minutes  just to find the price of chicken was more than I could manage.

But I am alone; I am old.  My son, I know, has violated the quarantine-- has 'dated' against social distancing recommendations.  I really can't blame him... I remember the early days of the AIDS epidemic, standing in a crowded bar weighing disease against passion-- and the latter always won.  There's a risk, yes... but I can't imagine being so young and independent-- having worked hard to make himself a home--  to watch his future being wrung out like wet laundry.  He is restless and ambitious.  I cannot answer his questions.

Personally I have no regular means of support... but I do recognize that I have a place to live in which I have collected things of importance to me-- books, instruments-- things that offer me a window in this solitude.  My rich neighbors with the renovated new space-- they have nothing... I hear their children, too-- trying to learn an instrument, being scolded, in the end sitting in their large bookless rooms with phones and tablets like social pacifiers.  They order food deliveries-- that is an event, an adventure.  Yes, occasionally I see the restaurant bags and sigh. They have no idea.

On the street outside the tent hospital Ubers line up at 9 PM to transport the medical staff home.  We applaud the workers every night, and they seem a little happier these days... less stressed.  At least they are not confined to a hostile apartment. The shiny black Billy Graham truck announces they are 'Sharing in the name of Jesus Christ.'  I'm not sure about that...  I don't like to speak for Him.

Shout out today to the white egret at the Meer today who almost let me touch him...to the fruit-vendor who stuffed a finger of fresh ginger in my bag and would not take my money... to the market that sold me a giant honeydew melon for $3 that is the best thing I've had in weeks...  And to all those who have met disappointment in love-- better sooner than later, I suppose.  The pandemic at its best will be like a sieve that filters truth from illusion.  And may that boy find a mother or grandmother who will take him in... the night is cold and bench-sleeping is not for the weak of heart.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Memes

A friend sent me a meme the other day of a beat-up old telecaster; crayon-scrawled on the body roughly and without finesse as though in an alcohol-fueled or museless funk the message: SONGS INSIDE FIND THEM.  It could have been a self portrait.  The songstress scarecrow that is me these days-- the hollow-man with the heart hanging from a string, the tear-tracks I literally feel like tattoos-- me the living girl-with-guitar sad emoji-- a smeary red smile graffiti'd onto a blue surgical mask which (has anyone else noticed?) conceals sorrow.

My symptoms have subsided... the tsunami of late March drama has ebbed a bit and the sun is out in spades, the cherry blossoms are in full bloom-- the dogwoods, the pink gibbous moon spread the evening curtain Tuesday to reveal herself between buildings like a taunting spotlit showgirl.  The evil wave took so many with it;  I was spared, clinging to an old leafless tree like a baffled and wounded survivor.  We all knew April was the cruelest month, but many of us did not believe.

Walking through Central Park, past the eerie tent city where so many hearts lie beating tenuously while loved ones wring their hands at home... the meadow grass is uncut and long... those without the virus can smell the green spring.  Crocuses and narcissi have poked through and a few robins are hopping over the gates.  The playgrounds are empty-- vacant swings like camera-shots in a kidnapping horror-film.  This is an R-rated place.

After 10 PM I can walk up the east side of Fifth Avenue without a mask; the streets are quite deserted except the ambulance activity, hospital personnel crossing from building to building.  The huge mobile-aid semis have put down metal roots along the west side of the street.  We see only the 'closed' side with the huge ominous signs that advertise not carnivals or circuses but Billy Graham.. Samaritans... these billion-dollar charities whose presence is linked to disasters and death.  The oversized cabs of these trucks are parked along the street.  They are shiny and buffed--- beautiful in a way, like gigantic luxurious and expensive accessories separated from their purpose.  Inside the tents we know is some chaos-- exhaustion, anxiety, medical expertise mixed with despair and frustration-- a kind of battleground complete with the structures which have grown weedlike across the meadow and remind us of wartime.  Gates and blue tape surround the area, keeping the public at a distance, warning that there is an infestation within.  Death breathes from the compromised chests of patients.  I heard it when I last spoke to Alan, hours before he passed away.

I feel guilty for my restored health-- for the clear air I breathed today on the way uptown-- for the minutes I have gained since he left the world, for the fact that despite my grief-- I am not even blood. Family members of the thousands of victims of this pandemic have reserved this right and privilege of grieving.  I am just a poor mourner at the window, looking in.

The city, as we all know is unrecognizable-- a skeleton of its former robust self.  It's like one of those ant farm toys where the ants have all died.  Empty corridors and unused pathways.  Halls and monuments without witnesses and participants.  I am some strange animal whose habitat has been profoundly disturbed-- a frog with no water, stranded on a rock somewhere in the midst of plague-- an urban dinosaur fossil dying of cultural and social deprivation  If a painting hangs in an unlit room, how does it exist?

'Widow' always struck me as a beautiful word; it is the title of the opening poem of my latest poetry collection...  a sequence of letters sadly missing the 'n' in the third place.  I have lost before.... a mother, a daughter, my greatest love... but here I am again-- much older, less solid.  I am made of glass-- sympathetic and transparent, reflective, breakable, scored and cracked-- trying to believe in a future, trying to believe in the darkness.

Earlier today I stood on a grocery line on Lenox Avenue, trying to sense some pedestrian normalcy amidst the relentless sirens.  The sun, the car radios, the boomboxes are still there... the people like me waiting to spend a bit more of their food stamps on overpriced stock.  I buy one thing at a time-- as though life is so fragile I cannot see my way into next week.   Much hip-hop noise from the street.. someone practicing saxophone... still the panhandlers out with no protection; they are long accustomed to the precariousness of life.  From 116th Street I heard Marvin Gaye's 'Sexual Healing'.  Not so much of that going on... and at this point in my life, it does not seem plausible.

When my turn came to enter the store, I headed for produce to see what I could afford.  Irony of ironies... Joan Jett came on the system, singing--what else?--  I Love Rock and Roll.  A message?  It taunted me.  I had to leave.  What's up, Mami, the security asked me... you no like? I tried to smile.  Walking home blinded again by teary eyes... the mask condemning us all to this faceless urban anonymity... I love rock and roll, I thought.  It is a no-brainer.  I sacrificed everything in my life for this passion.

Rest in Peace Alan Merrill, my friend of friends, who sang his heart out for this damned city, as though his life depended on it-- and it did.  Audience or no audience, he was the quintessential working man with the voice of a dark angel, another hero in the halls of remembered fame, another urn on the mantel of memory... taking another little piece of my heart and life with you.  I am nothing more than a cliché here, a human meme.  Do we not all love rock and roll? Of course we do.  It is just so rare that it loves us back.



Monday, March 30, 2020

Losing my Religion

When I was small and sick with one of those textbook childhood illnesses, the prospect of days in bed was a true delight.  There would be toast and jam and meal trays in bed... an opportunity to study my Robert Louis Stevenson and copy out my A. A. Milne into a book where I could draw my own pictures.  I could lift the quilts into a sort of tent and pretend I was an Inuit princess trapped for the winter in my house of ice while the arctic winds raged outside.

The novelty of this quarantine is wearing off.  My reading is piled up-- yes, and my projects sit before me... but I am less productive and a little more restless.  My body is telling me it's spring and just outside my window the dogwoods and cherry blossoms are doing their teasing best to tempt us before that magic moment when the soft pink carpet of petals covers the sidewalks and gutters for the briefest anti-urban blessing, and then turns to paleberry slush.  The crocuses and daffodils are blooming and the Park Avenue malls will be decked out... and we are stuck here in our cubicles, noses in our technology, binging on television, taking occasional breaks for a walk in the park or a trip to the supermarket.

Over the last few days I've had plenty of those mass-messaged Facebook posts suggesting 'tips' on defeating the Coronavirus.  Bad jokes, cartoons, sillinesses and distractions... personally, I am losing my urban religion.  I've had enough of film-watching and listening to the silence in my building hallways.  I have had a welcome few voicemails from old friends-- relatives-- people who worry about solitary people like me, checking in... making sure I am still here.

One of these was the beautifully resonant message from an older poet who lives in my neighborhood--  one of those old-fashioned voices made for reading aloud on vinyl recordings... for recitation and declamation...   wondering if I'm alright, this man, who once introduced Pablo Neruda to New York and appeared alongside John Ashbery on panels.  He has supported and read my work in the past.   We met on the crosstown bus, late-- he keeps his old Columbia University studio apartment on the west side where he writes overnight for the last 60 years, simply because he doesn't want to disturb his sleeping wife.  He and I would often meet on my way home from work; occasionally he would share with me... he wrote in longhand.

His wife passed away from cancer several years ago, but he continues his crosstown habit as though she were alive... so it touched me especially that he thought of checking in on me because I have not recently been bussing back and forth.  I watched him the other day; he rarely wears a coat, like an old Englishman... but is always impeccably dressed with a jacket and trousers, a button-down shirt and his hair combed gracefully in an old-style pompadour. He walks with hands clasped behind him like a distracted professor, looking down at the sidewalk.  He is always alone.  His fierce allegiance to this habit-- inspiration or none, rain or snow-- somehow touched me in this crisis... the loneliness and the solitary duality of two empty spaces suddenly seemed so poignant.

When I began this post I was sad and distracted-- less-than-inspired... but now in the past day I have suffered the terrific loss of my best friend and bandmate of years.  I am beyond devastated-- violated..
as though the cruelest wind came through and removed my favorite things from the city.  How do we go on from deaths, from loss?  My poet friend is teaching me something, I know.  Where is God, I want to ask him?  I am looking.

My friend was the kindest, most generous, most fun-loving, stage-gracing human.  He performed with exquisite musicality and dignity even in the worst venues, with the worst equipment.  His very presence was a poem for me... our stage and personal intimacy was like an award.  One whole day has finished without his gracious persona on this earth and I am waiting for some kind of choral requiem from the heavens-- a bucket of seawater on every street, a falling star exploding rooftops... Tonight I don't how to honor his memory nor celebrate his accomplishments.  I just want him to come back, to pick me up for the next gig and stand beside me while he sings like the godamn soul angel he always was until the old pre-Coronavirus sun rises over the east river.

I have cried a thousand tears and have nothing to show, nothing to trade, nothing to bargain.  Death is the tie that binds us all; it waves its hideous flag of warning over my lovely city and has banished so many of us to our lonely quarters like prisoners.  I feel like a solitary wooden ship left behind with no sail, an old poet traveling back and forth between lonely rooms with his blank notepad, reciting old verses memorized in another century.   Where is God, each one finishes, like a refrain:  we are looking.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Corona, Corona

There's a Taj Mahal moon out tonight... I mean the musician, not the palace, although you can take her anywhere and she'll never fail you.  A photographer friend tipped me off to the moonrise... he described it as orange and liquid... but here in the city I went block to block without a view until she had risen to the height of an average 10-story building and had become more like a bowl of raw milk.

The first time I ever heard Taj was a hot full-moon August night... I had no idea what to expect-- just the strange name-- and there he was, this simple hypnotic 2-beat weaving a Calypso-ish spell in the steamy club.  'Without my Corinna... sure don't mean a natural thing, ' he sang and it went straight through me like summer wind.

Years later my young husband showed up one day with none other than Mr. Henry St. Clair Fredericks, Taj's born-name... apparently they'd worked together and were friends.  I had many surprises in the early years of my marriage;  he spoke little but his past followed him like empty cans tied to a rear car-fender.  All colors-- all flavors... ('I learned to love you...' the song goes... accent on the 'you'...).  His rockstar friends, as well as the motley entourage that surrounded him, provided two kinds of education-- one biographical, and the other-- well, those were different times.  How many years has it been since I've seen anyone put out a bowl of milk for their pet cat?

When Wall Street has a bad day-- a really bad day, that is, there's a kind of pall over the city.  This virus scare has spread a film of slime and mistrust that no one needed at this moment.  In Harlem, little has changed.  Not so many investors up there... and life goes on-- illness or no illness.  People in their wheelchairs and leaning on walkers, asking for food and money-- no gloves, no masks.  But downtown-- midtown-- trains are less crowded, people seem subdued,  the way they were post-9/11.  Asians cover their mouths.  It's certainly taken us down a notch or two.

My man Salih who sells fruit from a stand across from Metropolitan Hospital says business is way off.  In February he refused to sell ginger, assuring me the Chinese were spreading illness; last night he was practically begging me to take any of his wares before they went bad.  Here, have a bag-- he packed it with a honeydew melon, some red peppers-- give me $2 he said, knowing I won't resist a bargain.  What will become of him who works 14 hours, 6 days... commutes 2 hours to a 2-room share in Staten Island, but is happy to be so close to the Mosque where he gratefully prays sometimes three times a day?

Last winter he was mugged and beaten badly for the $72 he had in his purse.  They dumped his fruit and stomped the bananas.  He is friendly with hospital staff, and they treated him on the sidewalk, but Allah-willing, he is terrified to visit the ER where he might be deemed undesirable and only partly legal.  Salih means virtuous...his son is named Aytagin which he tells me means 'Moon Prince'.

Tonight they have drawn a map-line around several neighborhoods.  When I was small there was a brief quarantine during the final polio outbreak; I thought the word meant something bad-smelling that came in a can-- like turpentine.   It made my mother scowl and keep us close to the small yard.   I keep thinking of that Wallflowers song 'the same black line that was drawn on you was drawn on me..'  We don't need this kind of thing now.  What is the meaning of it?  Threat?  Warning?  Punishment?  Things seemed so much happier at Christmas.  St. Marks Square in Venice is deserted now; the Gondoliers are sitting idly by the water, making smalltalk, telling jokes... but they fool no one.  Here we are trying to smile in our striped shirts, but we are anxious and defeated.

I saw a photo of Jakob Dylan recently; he looks tired and drawn, the way his father often did.  I am old enough to be his mother.  Henry St. Clair Fredericks is fat now.  He can still play, but he is not the same.  Just this week... festivals are being cancelled; music is receding into phones and online venues.  We are like closely-planted islands in this city-- isolated and selfish; few of us know our neighbors or notice when they fail to come home.  Even fewer are sitting quietly on a stoop tonight smoking-- listening to the music in their heart, watching the sky change.

My moon ages little; she hides, she circles, she shifts-- and then there she is, clean and untouched by what ails us here... same as she was the night I heard 'got a rainbow round my shoulder... looks like silver, shines like Klondike gold...'   Shine on, little Aytagin... may you grow strong and healthy as Salih, whose blessing today, in his broken Turkish-English, sounded like 'may you sell a million grapes in one hour.'

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Losing My Accent

It's been years since I watched a DVD on a television screen; my player is one of those VCR dual purpose machines that is no longer even patch-able into any viable system.  But recently I figured out how to connect my computer to TV, and as a test, I used an old video someone converted to digital.  So there I was, 30 years ago, puttering around a former apartment which in itself brought up a major nostalgia wave.  I loved my 'bachelorette' pad-- the compact but cool bi-level loft with the brick wall and the balcony where I'd hosted rockstars and journalists, wild parties, intimate candlelit dinners, rehearsals, recording sessions, baby showers and toddler play-dates.  Where I'd gone from vinyl to tape to cd, from Smith-Corona to Microsoft, from art consultant to bassist, historian to songwriter, 20's to 30's, single to married (and repeat...)...

Suddenly this woman who coyly shielded herself from the cameraman and then with candor dropped the charade was devastatingly familiar... and yet so far away.   I suppose since I've ignored the whole phone-culture, the selfie-obsession, the instant i-Movie phenomenon... I'm missing a couple of generations of self-documentation.  But thanks to the thoughtfulness of a visiting friend with a video-camera, a few 'slices' of my life-as-a-mother were recorded, along with some footage of me at the age of 9 playing Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.  Where the little girl in the sailor dress seems like some random animated doll-puppet, the young mother at home with her baby-boy was this woman I wanted to know.  It was as though I suddenly understood what men found appealing all through those years-- this casual grace, an unstudied sense of style... black hair pulled back in a cheap barrette, strands of hair falling like a shadow across a face I recalled like an old actor in her prime movie.

I've never been a mirror-worshipper-- rather a mirror-avoider.  There is a time, however, in nearly every girl's life where she makes this leap from awkward adolescence to some kind of swan-hood-- a moment where her body makes sense-- whether it is in a dance-class, on a sports field, drawing a picture-- acting-- suddenly you are a coherent 'being'; your parts work, your brain works.  You cease to be a duckling and you are given a glimpse of your potential-- your power.  For some of us, the accident of physical beauty provides either a motivator or a hindrance.  For others, the confluence of emotion and intelligence and action just seem to synch up and suddenly we are 'real'.  A camera can either confirm or contradict this perception; of course now, there are so many digital manipulations available, one can't really trust a photo.  Sometimes it took that moment where we were chosen for a part-- a team-- a friendship.  That boy we crushed on suddenly looks at us as though he's seeing for the first time... or some amazing new girl in your class wants to be your BFF, with blood signatures and clothing exchanges and vows.  It feels good.  We are validated.

In the video I could feel that validation-- a confidence, a confirmation...  her smile, her speech-- the calmness... as though life was a slow river and we had all the time in the world in this lovely boat of love and relentless gifting.  Even the baby could feel it-- he was relaxed and easy, and the way mother and son touched one another was so lovely... with trust and a profound sense of family.  I was absolutely mesmerized; the idea this was my 'self' was both exhilarating and devastatingly poignant.

My friends and I have come so far.  So many have veered off the road-- passed away from illness or accident or suicide.  Many have dipped into the lowest emotional depths.  Aging is difficult. Personally, I do avoid mirrors but being a working musician, I see the photos-- the craggy shadows and lines I do not cover over.  I see myself as a tree in winter--- the same branch-arms that once were dressed in lush green are now craggy and stiffer.  They have yet to break off-- I find a kind of brittle strength in these years, but my old beauty is missing.

Looking at the video again, I remember I had two lovers at the time; one was tall and southern- -the other was young and slender and European-- a musician, like me.  The young musician moved in and for several years we maintained a kind of family... but this ended, and he returned to his home.  There were other lovers, other roommates... the southern man and I are still close friends although there have been distances between us.  I can remember his face-- he reminded me of a young Gregory Peck and it took my breath away.  Now he is nearly as craggy as I.  He often brings me lunch and we take trips together.  Today he mentioned how he hates his southern accent.  For me, it is part of what I love--what remains.  Every once in a while he slips up and says 'si-REEN' or 'GUItar' with the accent on the first syllable.

Recently I've been interviewing kids for my alma mater-- mostly young women and many of them recent immigrants.  They are altogether so anxious to 'lose' their accents and become fully integrated American girls.  I look back at the young woman I was 30 years ago and understand why my Mom nagged and nagged me to make better choices while I laughed and smiled and waved her warnings away... all these years later I see how she understood that the 'accent' of my womanhood was something I would eventually leave behind.  Time is on your side for oh-so-long... until it isn't.   Which is not all that bad, I will testify...  wishing a heartfelt 'carpe diem' to my readers.

Monday, February 17, 2020

What's in a Name

Pathmark 125th Street has long joined the ranks of  discarded NYC institutions now--the site under transformation into an enormous residential and retail development.  For me, embracing designated economic poverty as an older adult, it was a reality-experience.  The simple enormity of the space at this location, unlike the crowded Manhattan supermarkets with narrow aisles and limited wares, was spectacular for someone like me who,  excepting road-trip stops,  was under-exposed to mall-shopping.  I visited Pathmark for the sales, the availability, the simple 'gift' of space... the late-night hours, proximity to subway.  Where else could I score a decent fresh turkey for 69 cents a pound?  The scams, the schemes of visiting regulars-- the simple neighborhood habits of those who brought folding chairs and sat basking in the generous 'lobby' air conditioning in summer-- the recycling, the socializing and innocent panhandling...  all part of the past 'innocence' of New York.

Finding bargains these days and living on food stamps is a challenge.  Last week I was in one of my current preferred grocery destinations in Harlem, and I heard a woman yelling... 'Princeton!' with more and more conviction.  So I turned-- yes, there those old days when some random boyfriend or bandmate would refer to me sarcastically by my alma-mater and like 'Mom' which never fails to prick my ears anywhere, I respond.   A small toddler had been leaning against my cart with that dreamy fearless curiosity 2-year-olds can display even in a crowd... eventually the woman came over, grabbed him, gave him a little smack... 'don't you wander, Princeton!'  I couldn't resist... yes, this was his given birth name.  Princeton. In the 'hood.  I had a little conversation with them both, assured the child he was going to be smart and important... and then a little inner monologue with myself on the way home about names.

I have a simple, basic three-letter name.  Actually my mother gave me the French 5-letter version, so the meaning of it would be understood as 'beloved' and not mistaken for the other derivative spelling-- 'friend'.  But the ratio of four-to-one/ vowels-to-consonants is a hard-spell for a child not to mention pretentious in the milieu of the 60's.  Compared to today's 'Beyonce' and Destiny-- the tag-names of the 21st century-- it is minimal.

My elementary school was part of the 1960's bussing experience.  Besides the physical introduction of diversity, there were the names.  We were all basically Tom, Dick and Harrys-- Kathy, Robin and Susans, in those days-- but these kids-- they were named after kings and presidents.  Their names were hyphenated and ornate-- colorful.  The girls were Velma and Darcelle; this elevated and embellished our morning role-call.  I went home and asked my Mom for a better name.  She did not grace this with a reply--  she who had given me one only, insisting when I got married my surname would fall into middle-status.

Many of my fellow students, as the 60's wore on, re-appropriated their African names.  Some of the Jewish kids I met in the city became radicalized and used Hebrew.  Rockers re-christened often--became single-names or branded themselves somehow, while it was fairly common for actors and public performers to round the edges of their ethnicities and smooth out family names into generic and non-specific identities.  My own father's family, like many immigrants desperately seeking 'Americanization'  had done this.   Go figure.

Lately it is rare that, in my local Starbucks where I am currently interviewing kids for my alma-mater (yes, little Princeton, I mention your name often) I rarely see a staff name-tag that looks familiar to me.  The variety of these is like the constantly expanding nomenclature for coffees and drinks-- exotic, conversation-provoking, ethnically transparent or confusing-- non-gender-identifying.  There are kids with names of countries, of seas, of flowers... of foods, of liquor brands and corporations.  Rappers acquire 3-part sentence names or words.  Common-- that one always sticks to me.  My name, in this expanded overpopulated internet world of infinite repeats-- is-- well, common.  Like most everything else.

I have googled my own name to find a whole column's worth of 'me'... I have even received mail and messages for my namesakes.  Three of us know one another-- in this city.  One friended me on Facebook.  Yesterday I asked a girl in the supermarket about her name tag... her Mom couldn't spell, she told me, but now she likes it.  It's different.  Desnity.  Spellcheck did a double-take, too.

While our traditional old-school vocabulary seems to decrease in usage, new languages and acronyms have become part of our work-arsenal.  People actually speak less to one another these days-- they text, they have their bluetooth and earbuds in... they engage less eye-to-eye.  They do listen... and they wear names.  It is hard to find a single human on a subway without a label or-- more often, several.  Wearing someone else's name was always strange to me.

At the end of her life, for some time, my mother could barely speak.  Her caretaker called her 'Queenie' which seemed wrong to me.  Queenie did not protest much of anything at the end.  Inside she'd regressed beyond even recognizing herself as 'Mom'.  But somehow, even at the very end, when I called her name,  I could see a small light.  Gift of God, the meaning.  No matter how we change, alter, edit, revise... no matter what our intimates and lovers call us in the dark, there is something in our original naming that imprints.  I thought about this, reading the obituary of Kirk Douglas... his adopted name meaning 'church', but his original name, 'Issur' meaning 'he who wrestles with God'... surely defined him.   Anyway, I think somehow he might have agreed, in the end.