Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Now You See It….

Many years ago I was working at a highbrow art gallery and made my first important sale to a rock star.  As he handed over what was then a small fortune, he asked me, politely, how he could be certain that his new painting was real.  You can't, I assured him; but I can.  I knew.  In those days part of our rigorous art education was connoisseurship-- we looked and studied masterpieces and were tested on deciphering fakes and forgeries from the real deal.  At a certain point, you get a feel for it-- you just 'know', like fresh-baked cookies from the boxed kind, like a green plant from a plastic one.  Guitar collectors search and play and touch and study-- the real musicians just 'know'... they pick up a guitar and it sings its history-- its wooden roots-- the skill of the luthier who lovingly put it together with electronics and bits of material so that its soul matched its beauty.  The best of them, like old paintings,  have passed through one or two owners who played them and loved them-- broke them in and seasoned the wood... they feel experienced, layered.

I was having a vigorous discussion Saturday with a visiting Frenchman about the art market, and out of my mouth came the word Authenticity-- like a sentry, like a pillar or goddess... like one of those lovely intangible names so many girls in the hood proudly wear around gold chains these days--  Destiny, Felicity, Cadence, Chassity (yes, I looked twice at that one... ).  Authenticity, in the end, is what matters, I heard myself saying… not the kind that is guaranteed by a stamp or certificate or committee when you buy a Warhol or a Keith Haring, but the real thing.

Back in the day, there were sketchy galleries on Madison Avenue who sold Picassos, Miros, Chagalls-- with or without signatures; most of these came accompanied by a piece of paper like a pedigree, guaranteeing their authenticity.  None of these galleries are currently in business; their provenance is a sort of black mark on the merchandise, even if it is real.  They reminded me of the papers issued when you bought a certain breed from one of those puppy stores which are also a thing of the past, buried beneath lawsuits and claims.   A guarantee of purity and lineage…  how were we to know this was a grey-market dog?  Would we return it after adopting it into our family?  Of course not.  Imagine the paperwork that comes with religious and historic relics--- Napoleon's penis which is insured for an obscene sum and would auction for far more-- who knows the absolute truth, the DNA nitty-gritty?

Most of us would be horrified if we bought tickets to hear a great rock band and ended up with their lookalikes simulating the music... or if they showed up and played cover songs all night.  We would know.  But the art world-- the quick overnight successes-- do we feel the depth of what they do?  Yes, Jean Michel Basquiat had a kind of genius-- looking at his work was like hearing the young Ramones at CBGB's before anyone told us it was cool.  But too many of us are happy now to hang a poor imitation of his unique style with a bunch of silly text scrawled across the page.  It 'looks' hip-- but it's really just bullshit.  Half the artists showing in galleries are wannabes or followers-- and the audience lacks the time or interest to investigate who their mentors were.  Most people these days get their blues from Eric Clapton, not Lightnin Hopkins or Blind Lemon Jefferson. People in general settle for the 'light' version, take their selfies and go home and watch Netflix.

There are so many awards-- nominations, honors--- a self-proclaimed candidate can produce a roster of accomplishments and offices held.  Is anyone really bothering to certify these things?  Our children play in sports leagues; virtually every child is given a trophy... it's misleading, not democratic-- and gives children the idea that they are the best when they are not even good.  It's a Snakes and Ladders game of fame-- press the right Instagram button, and you are an instant princess-- not that I am bitter about the easy success of the undeserving-- it's just the substitution of this, like artificial sweetener, that leaves a bad taste and ruins the dream.  And in the runway 'walk of fame'... who is bothering to distinguish what is authentic from the rest?  Some of us are.

In this day of fake news, puppet presidents, internet hoaxes, and instant fame, some of us can feel what is authentic, like an old patina-- not a manufactured coating.  You can feel beauty, too-- in people-- even older people who have not had their faces updated-- you can sense a certain grace in their hands, in their eyes when they speak to you: who they were, who they are...  like slow wisdom or a ripening.

When I was a girl, my favorite book was The Prince and the Pauper.  I loved kings and queens in disguise--- even The Princess and the Pea-- the way real heroic nobility and royal kindness shone through rags and tatters.  We no longer have the example of  'good' rulers.  Quite the contrary.  But there are still things out there to be discovered that are badly dressed and brilliant-- or unmarketed,
non-Instagramed, and wonderful.  There is more soul in a couple of the men I hear singing in the train stations than in all the top 40 recordings I can't name.  Talent is no guarantee of success, and too often the best of them drop out.  It's too damned hard.

I still can't get over that da Vinci painting... I mean, when I was ten, my mother took me to see the Mona Lisa on its world tour.  Of course we waited endlessly on a huge line, and we were rushed by the viewing stage... but it was magical.  Yes, it was curtained and 'presented' with theatricality-- but you could breathe its importance-- its quiet beauty.  I had chills... I nearly cried; it was authentic.  But that $450 million painting? It spoke not a word-- no song, no chills, no magic.  It was flat.  Like a bird that choked, or a clown in couture.  It just didn't feel right;  but then there are always those who want to believe in the charlatan, in the false messiah, the doctored unicorn.

For years I tried to imitate my mother's simple yellow cake recipe-- it just never came out tasting right.  I finally gave up and did things from scratch my own way and discovered something else.  I'm not a baker, I'm a bass player.  Of course I definitely have my heroes, and have plenty to learn from the masters, but the last thing I want is to sound like them.  I may never be famous or celebrated, but I'll be myself.  People used to ask my Mom what her secret ingredient was, and she'd laugh it off.  I finally realized it was her hands-- her skill, her unique story, the passion and love she baked in-- her inimitable recipe for authenticity.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Instagram Coffee

When I first went to college I signed up for a minimal meal plan, to save money for tuition.  There were no cooking facilities or even refrigerators in dormitories back then... I had one of those cheap little electric kettles and I bought myself packets of instant cream of wheat-- a relatively new product.  The previous years I'd gone to high-school in a morning session (over-crowded school-scheduling) which required a 5 AM wake-up to walk dogs and put together a sustaining breakfast.  I cooked myself a pot of hot porridge or wheat cereal-- this took some twenty minutes-- with butter, cream (yes-- my indulgent mother) and brown sugar,  cafe-au-lait-- which had to get me through six long break-less hours until lunch. Even the memory of it is hearty and good.  My first homesick dormitory morning of instant mush was horrifying.  It tasted like paper--was either pasty or soupy-- gritty and awful.  Coffee was no better.

I've never been able to drink instant coffee.  As low-maintenance and minimal as my eating habits have become, by necessity, fast food has never been my thing.  I like brewed coffee-- pour-over, fresh-steeped.  In my son's well-designed office there are several varieties of machines which produce a perfect cup in seconds; individual servings with endless combinations of roasts and flavors... lattes, espresso, cappuccino-- all pre-measured, packaged in a disposable clean pod... all tasting, to me, suspiciously like airport coffee.  I've noticed many, many new chains of dedicated boutiques, all featuring some brewing or roasting specialty-- the craft of coffee, the process-- some at a premium that rivals the price of a good pound of fresh beans.  They all seem to have a following.  It seems even the post-millennials know the difference between office-brew and high-test.  My son goes out to Starbucks for his caffeine fix.  Manhattan is packed with chefs and food choices.  While McDonald's and Burger King don't seem to suffer, restaurants of all varieties,-- take-out trucks and stores offer seriously decent dishes for every meal.  Sommeliers have never been as sought-after; cheese experts, pastry chefs are in high career-demand.

So what happened to music?  Why do we get this variety of instant shake-and-bake beats and lyrics that pass as records?  Where are the writers and the inspired, tormented poets-with-guitars?  Out in a tent on a backroad in Mississippi?  Sleeping with the gypsies in a caravan in Croatia?

I've been playing in bands for 40 years or so, and consider myself a second-tier musician.  I sympathize with the geniuses of my circle who surpassed their curriculum before they even entered music school-- who could not only show their teachers a few things but can play their proverbial asses off.  Many of them live in low-income or subsidized housing projects.   Some of them are dead, having indulged their souls and bodies in the process of challenging their own talents... or tormenting themselves in the self-doubting ritual of most brilliant artists who see the light and cannot quite get there every night.  Few of them receive the acknowledgment they are due; they must turn on award shows and watch the endless accolades of achievement doled out to the mediocre and uninspired.
It is like watching a cup of instant coffee win the taste award year after year.  It's a depressing sentence.

On another level, I co-host a weekly jam in a New York City club whose name bears tribute to one of the great figures in American music.  Many of our friends and wonderfully talented colleagues join us in celebrating our community here, in perpetuating a certain tradition.  But nearly every week we are joined by someone who gives themselves a list of credits-- who gets up onstage and displays the musical flavor-profile of a water-cooler-style instant coffee.  Do they get this?  Are they listening?  I don't know.  Some of it is simple skill and practice.  Some of it is 'ear'-- the ability to discern what is good from what is merely adequate.  But much of it is simple failure to listen.  Can these people distinguish a freshly-grilled burger from a fast-food filler-patty?  I would think so.   But here they are, offering up the audio version of plastic food choices, sometimes via instruments which belonged to celebrities before them, which cost a small fortune, but sound cheap and misused.

Or is it that we are not just deaf but blind?  In this world of a billion pairs of fashion eyeglasses, people do not see themselves.  We have Beyonce-unlikes who flaunt themselves on the street-- women of age with enhanced lips and injected faces who choose to dress and behave like their own daughters.  I remember becoming 40-ish... I could see in the mirror I was turning like a late-summer leaf-- from a youngish woman to a mature one.  At first I was panicky and loathed myself-- discovered tricks of hair-color and make-up.  But then I began to realize it's not so bad-- I don't have to be beautiful all my life; it's time to focus on content.  I've been loved; I can still continue to love.  So I have left behind my girlhood; there is still the memory and the experience.  And now, I have long left behind my 40's and in photographs quite see the beauty I did not understand at the time.

Recently I had an accident on the subway steps; it wasn't too serious but I noticed my knee had somehow kept the memory of some old injury and was stubbornly refusing to heal itself.  It was reminding me of my past-- fiercely holding on to some long-forgotten fear and stress of pain-- maybe from my ballet days.   A friend of mine has had a cancer recurrence.. like a message from his body-- a voice-- a scar which was untended.

Late Monday night, after my gig, I watched St. Louis Blues on some free non-cable network.  This is the story of the great W.C. Handy-- his struggle with music.  Even the actors playing these roles-- Nat King Cole, Eartha Kitt--- Ruby Dee... had a kind of genius and exquisite talent we rarely see in our time.  The voice of Eartha Kitt-- unadorned, unadulterated-- those eyes-- I could not take my eyes from the screen.  The temporary blindness of W. C. Handy-- the depth of his musical nature-- how he nurtured and groomed this as he matured.  I think of my fellow musicians here--- even myself, with my handicaps and mediocrities-- how many thousands of nights we stood trying to understand ourselves onstage-- learning to listen and find our place in the music; how we suffer and starve-- me, the Princeton summa cum laude girl with the scholarships and accolades-- struggling to just be-- to let go of being loved, admired-- to be sometimes misjudged or slighted, hit on by club-owners and horn players--- chided, praised, cheated, marginalized and drowned out-- just for these moments of musical truth-- for my tiny contribution to something larger.  I am no genius; I am a cog, but I think I am finally a listening, genuine cog.

W.C. Handy had his retribution: parental forgiveness, restoration of sight-- great lifetime acknowledgment.  Not so for me-- I have my old scars, like the pain in my knee which will heal, telling my story, somehow inserting themselves into the music-- the experience, the joy, the sweat and truth we try so hard to convey, with tedious long years and words-- 2-track soundbites and voices ringing like old bells in the face of the Instagram wall that stands before us with ever more facile digital brickwork, every day.  And yet, I wouldn't trade a single analogue minute, old and scarred as I am, me and my vintage guitars, my scraps of paper and my dreams.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Let the Games End

I don't know why the opening ceremony of the Olympics sort of gives me the shivers.  Maybe it's the color wash of pomp and nationalistic display that just seems so out of touch with the dull and miserable reality of the less fortunate population.  Puerto Rico is neglected; starvation and disease are rampant in so many places worldwide; the growing disparity between the haves and have-nots has never seemed so hideous.  The Korean culture itself--- the military parades and exhibitions of the North like a braggart's bluff-- the singing girls and the happy marchers... the reality of repression and forced obedience... the apparent moratorium on human rights that welcomes athletes from a hostile and hideous regime for what-- the spirit of competition?  I just don't get it.  It feels opportunistic and juvenile... some kind of #metoo madness.

Not to mention the pall cast over the gymnastic community which has colored yet another sport almost permanently.  Who protects those of our children who have been deemed special or uber-talented and marketable-- whose natural skills and talents have been parlayed into industries and fortunes not to mention a kind of national heroism?  As a young aspiring dancer, I could sense the thorns and perils even before I understood abuse and boundaries.  We each have instincts, but our ambitions so often triumph better judgment... as well as that of all those people on our path who close one eye when there is a huge pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.  Until the whistles blew.... and how many sports are now tainted by cover-ups, pay-offs, cheating, doping?  Does the best man/woman win?  Look at our elections.  Not only did we get the dark horse but we got a non-qualifier.  If politics was a sport our president would be limping at the starting-line with an ill-fitting uniform and no sponsors but his own sad brand.  Eisenhower might have been a good golfer but he was also a 5-star general.

What version of America shows up at these international competitions? The athletes are still young players in a kind of dream-- individuals with the drive and stamina to be the best they can be-- who put their skill on the line internationally for their nation-- but who are we?  A disorganized country with little focus except money-- an untrained leader whose familiarity with the 50 states came from watching the  Miss America pageant.  And now he wants a military parade-- this man who never fought a war or trained for one-- who throws around threats and battle-language like some kind of cartoon character.  The Monopoly president whose claim to office is an affirmation of the sad state of pop culture and the negation of human values.  We won't see his image on a bill or coin, but on a game-piece-- a gambling chip.  The man himself to me is an ever-expanding hot-air balloon-- the latest float at a Macy's parade...  to bring him down will take some strategy because he is not just a player but a cheater.  In the end, in my personal American dream--- to ultimately deflate the high-flying symbol of bloated greed and cartoon quackery will take a simple pin.

I can't help blaming the current flu epidemic on a certain emotional malaise among my American peers.  My friends and I have been mostly depressed since Election Day 2016.  Anything could take us down.  Few of us trust the medical system  to protect us against disease or to give a whit about healthcare beyond what profits the insurance and drug companies.  We do not get vaccinated; we get sick.  We are watching these games and athletics through feverish eyes, wondering at the lingering inequality of women in some sports, and worrying about the fate of the Korean cheerleaders and delegates.  Will they be punished?  Will there be defectors?  Why is South Korea so apparently recently solicitous of its evil Northern sister?

To me the two Koreas seem like a dysfunctional family; the South-- a beautiful place, ranked No.1 in the world in technological innovation-- so there is obvious talent and brilliance concentrated there-- a thing which might create envy in any family.  In the North-- repression is standard; starvation is rampant.  Students reputedly must buy their own desks and chairs to attend class, etc.  It is not a place that fosters creativity or joy... one pities the athletes who cannot possibly reap the rewards available to other nations-- win or lose.  It parallels my own sad family, in a way.... love has become impossible.. and although I neither respect nor admire my sister, she has used threats and fear to further alienate and weaken any family attachment I might have had.  She has forbidden her children to befriend me, although they have attempted defection... and now through force and might has conscripted the core and remaining fortune of my nuclear family so that even my own legacy will be withheld.  It is a game without rules; a rigged contest where the judges are the contestants, and there is one pre-arranged winner.

In this upside-down Trumped world where the jokers preside and justice sits on a bench with yesterday's stale sandwich, well... these villains will continue to steal the pie.  But for my true sisters of musical voice-- of pen and pencils and paint-- the filmmakers and innovators-- my teammates in life-- we will dance on their graves one day.  We will speak and write and sing and continue to raise our children with unconditional love.  We are out there-- on the streets-- in cornfields and in small homes... some of us coughing and barely able to board a public bus...  we wave to one another-- with some hope--  in our old clothing, with no medals or trophies but underneath it all,  a still-ticking American heart.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Where There is a Will….

The passage of relative time is a perpetual surprise for me; the pool of my past is filling so quickly with years… I can remember well when it was near-empty and the sense of  'brink' was like a permanent slow companion.  Looking at images from yesterday's women's march I remembered how I lived around the corner from Jackie Kennedy in her young widowhood.  She came in and out like a movie star, was civil but not very friendly to neighbors.  Still, despite her aura and the unequivocal celebrity status that seemed somehow to protect her, she was visible and often took taxis like anyone else.  She'd occasionally sit by the Central Park zoo with her children or a friend; people seemed to respect her privacy, from sanitation workers to other socialites.  After all, she was part of maybe the most important American story of her era… and she'd moved on-- she'd stepped outside the drama and assumed life as a regular woman.  She had children-- she had a job.

My mom was close to her age, and like all American women of that generation, she was influenced by her style: the hair, the hats and sunglasses-- her tall, understated elegance.   But what so many of them had in common was this silent acceptance of their husband's infidelities.  My own father's were not as flagrant or exciting; they were not even always centered on other women.  But there was a sort of pact these women kept-- a tolerance for behaviors that undermined and insulted their dignity in some way… and yet they carried on. They had their hair done, their nails manicured,  they met friends for lunch and took taxis to meetings.  They volunteered at schools-- they played bridge and shopped.  But they exchanged few complaints about their marriages.  They were committed, they were locked in.  My own mother feared being alone and made so many concessions I both disrespected her submissiveness and admired her stoicism.  It was the other version of #metoo:  I'm a wife and mother-- my husband doesn't treat me the way I deserve, but I have a sense of dignity.  #metoo.

In the wake of the current epidemic of accountability and blame, of revelations of abuse, I think about the variations and B-sides of the trend.  My son tells me about men-- athletes he knows, who avoid fun and flirtation because they are so targeted, like starlets, by predatory women who plot to cry monster as soon as they entrap.  It's like a reverse #metoo.  And how about the betrayals-- those of us whose husbands cheated, slept with our friends and sisters-- our beloved life partners… and we left-- we had to leave-- the pain, the humiliation was intolerable?  We were not Jackie O or my mom, but women who needed to save our children from marital tension and reinvent ourselves.  #metoo.

On Jackie O's corner, when I was 20-ish, a beautiful boy used to stand between 5 and 6 every evening. I'd return home and he seemed to stare at me.  I thought maybe he was a stalker, or just waiting for a ride or a bus.  But one day, he left me a note… a love note.  He smiled while I read it… and waved.  I ignored him... but gradually he came closer… he rode the bus with me, did funny tricks and made me laugh.  He had this beautiful long blonde hair and different colored eyes, like a huskie.  It was inevitable that we would consummate this little flirtation… it was passionate and innocent.  Without clothes, he was angelic like a boy-- it went on for weeks, until my boyfriend came back from wherever he'd been… Later I learned he was only 17.  I'd actually committed some kind of violation of a minor-- this romantic little game we'd played out of pursuit and conquest.  I could have been prosecuted in some scenario as a predator.  #metoo.

I grew up a little sister.  I followed, worshipped, loved and occasionally feared my older sister.  She was conniving and manipulative; like all first-borns, she'd been the little princess and then had to share.  I gave her anything she wanted, to win her affection and maintain her trust.  I was loyal and lied for her.  She was often in trouble and I wanted to help.  At a certain point, she turned on me-- maligned and backstabbed and betrayed.  She wanted to regain her territory and I retreated-- moved on.  It's an old story-- either fight it out, tooth and nail, or find another place.  I made friends, created my own family.  I missed my mother-- her stoicism and old-school devotion to the fictional hearth of family.  She missed me, too.  Toward the end of her life, I couldn't stay away, despite the threats of my sister.  My mother read my heart and confided her fears and regrets and sorrows.  Now that she has passed, I have to manage the harsh consequences of my lack of involvement in their legal arrangements.  I am marginalized and passed over-- misunderstood and-- again, betrayed.  It is painful to receive this, and yet I know I must 'eat the document', as they say.  I find I am one of a legion of naive family members who are the victims of competitive siblings and a kind of justice of greed.  I am a sentimental party, and I will lose my right to inherit any thing of beauty to keep my mom close to me-- around my neck or on my dresser.  There are many of us, and we seem to be women without men to assert our rights with a loud, combative voice.  A 'will'… the document is called.  It seems to have none.  A won't.  #metoo.

We've lost children, we've been sick and no one showed up-- we've survived without child support, or any support… #metoo.  We've made mistakes with our children, and we've had no one to share in the joy they have given us…#metoo.  We grieve alone, we are misread, underacknowledged and passed over.  We grow old and have to make difficult choices… we remember the victories, the losses, the insults-- the love and the sex and the confessions and the lies, the satisfactions and the frustrations, the fresh beginnings and the hopelessness of the tide running out.  And yet we are still here-- me, my friends, my work… the legacies which may or may not mean something when we are gone… another kind of will.  I do…#metoo…

For several days I have wept out loud watching excerpts of the US Olympic gymnasts describe the disturbing abuse they endured under the guise of medical treatment.  This is not a new story, but the courtroom testimonials are devastating.  The #metoo movement has revealed that the greater majority of women have been subjected to mistreatment in one form or another.  When it targets our entire life's focus-- our dedication and dreams, our passion and talent-- it is that much more heinous and difficult.  I kept silent when I was attacked and threatened by a producer who had invited me to discuss the music I wrote which he had described as brilliant,  only to find he had another agenda.  It was humiliating and traumatizing, and I carried it in silence; I paid a price, and survived.  But what bothers me in the case of the gymnasts-- they were children.  Were their parents completely unaware? Their perfect proud mothers whose dreams were being realized by the prize-winning performance of offspring-- did they fail to rock the boat, did they disbelieve?  Did their daughters keep quiet because they feared disappointing their parents?  Can children actually be raised to keep these dangerous 'secrets' with their moms?  I know I was.  In the 1960's this would have fallen on deaf ears.  My sister acted out in ways that were beyond disturbing, but no one seemed to want to take her for help.  My own father suffered from paralyzing depressions and manic periods, and no one wanted to speak.  I asked to visit a shrink-- to discuss this-- and my Jackie O-esque mom ignored my plea-- what if it went on my perfect college transcript? For the siblings, friends and parents who fail to blow whistles, who worry about consequences and selfish ambition and fail to observe and protect their children… shame on you... #youtoo.

So while I am now excluded from family money because the truth-- awkward as it might have been--was my blood sibling,  I will always choose not to ally myself with the guilty.  Attached as they were to their agenda, they not only neglected to protect, but punished me.  I forgive my mom; she herself was marginalized and disrespected often, and did not have the courage to do anything but enable.  Here we are, horrified at the testimony of these young athletes… and failing to protect so many children in our midst.  We elected a president who is not only abusive to women but ignorant, bigoted and hateful.  What message is this sending?  My mom reached out to me late in life-- she confessed and apologized, opened her heart.  I will love her and miss her forever.  As for the rest of them.. there is karma, but there is also great injustice in the world; we can only try to leave a legacy of truth and compassion going forward… #metoo... our work has only just begun.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Closely Watched Trains

At 8 or 9 PM on New Year's Eve I generally try to phone one of my friends overseas where the year has begun in earnest.  It feels a little special-- as though we are bridging some time gap and violating some order-- me here in the past, getting ready to go to a gig, listening to the sounds of the future-- the singing and rowdy partygoers who have passed the finish line and have already begun to unwind and absorb the vaguely monotonous reality that 2018 or whatever year is not so different from 2017-- at least not yet.  My Norwegian friends were drunk and optimistic that we are all going to blow this one wide open.

Working as a musician on this night is a sort of brilliant copout.  I am not responsible for the success or failure of the party; there is no anticipated date, no dinner reservation or romantic disappointment-- just amps, microphones, music, dancing, alcohol and noise-making... and then I get paid and go home to my peaceful little uptown hideaway where I am relieved that the world passed another milestone without disaster, that there were no deaths in Times Square; the MTA is at least holiday-operative, and the global clock is still ticking.

The subway ride home at 4 AM January 1 is special.  Back in the 1980's public transportation was free on this night-- a gift to the city, so anyone could afford to get home somehow-- even those who had lost their wallets or spent every last dollar in bars and clubs.   I can remember being so poor as a student, we rode the train to Coney Island and back as our celebration; standing on the beach watching distant fireworks was intoxicating.  At some point full-fare was restored;  this year the extreme cold was the main topic...  it made things little extra festive-- we were all so relieved to be off the street and in a relatively warm car.  There was, of course, the prerequisite vomiter, the sleeping drunks... but mostly just revelers with their parties still in tow, stumbling in and out of train doors with paper hats and crowns and joy.

I am always relieved, these days, to go home after a gig-- relieved that there are no major disasters, no stage-pissing or broken bones, no lost chords or tuners-- and somehow this night I sensed the awkward-shaped package of 2017 tie itself off.  I felt clean-- unburdened of dread, and slightly lifted from the muddy ground of the old year which brought month after month of sad news-- death, illness and tragedy.  I was letting it go; or rather, it was releasing me.  Across the car from me was a twenty-something man with his knees drawn up,  skinny jeans down around his hips, designer underwear and bare back in full view.  Obviously he'd lost his coat-- he'd had a rough night.  The boys next to me began to try to wake him-- what should we do, they asked me, the obvious 'senior' passenger and designated mother? Let him sleep, I advised; he's safer in the warm car until he sobers up and can figure out his itinerary.... but they were adamant... he woke, the sleeper-- and in his dark wet eyes was the halo of narcotics.  He was angry-- defensive-- he was some kind of beautiful and non-gendered persona-- belligerent, wounded.  I could imagine he'd been personally traumatized-- disappointed or even abused just hours earlier; there was guilt in his attempt at defiance-- there was also resentment and old grief.  It took a few minutes until he recognized something behind my guitar case and my wraps...  a maternal presence;  on the verge of complicated tears, he at last confided his destination-- yes,  completely disoriented and traveling further and further from his Brooklyn home.  So we all put our January-1 heads together and mapped out a route with transfers and station-jumping so he could remain inside until the last exit.  A young couple took him across the platform at 42nd Street-- they hugged me as they departed the train.

There is always a great media-fuss made over the first baby of the year; inevitably in this huge city there is a birth shortly after midnight.  I realized, as I rode the rest of the way uptown, my train-mates were my newborns of 2018.  The sad, wounded coatless Brooklynite... the young couples with glitter-tattoos, the chef on his way to the morning shift at Mount Sinai, the tired bartender from Artichoke Pizza who plays upright bass and hopes for a career in music; he took his hat off as I left and let down his beautiful black hair-- with his lovely voice and hands-- I know he will be a star.

We humans begin to lose our memory as we collect time, but most of us seem to retain a special slot for 'firsts': the first day of school, the first dance, the first minute of pregnancy, first night we spent with almost every single lover-- even if it was also the last.  We can play back things-- the room, what he wore, the way he felt under the sheets... these things seem to persist somewhere, like a recurring dream.  And of course the moments with our children... even the difficult ones, when you are wracked with some fever or even labor, and your toddler is needing you to read to him.'

I played my  usual Monday gig, still in the spell of the new year, and returned home on the Q, realizing things were already dissolving into normalcy.  People were tired and cold, not many smiled or shared on the train or the platform.  Today I stopped for a coffee and finished my first book of the year, or really, the last of the past year-- a Salman Rushdie.  There was a little girl, nagging her father to read to her; he was distressed, searching his phone, pacing a bit...  she came over to me with her book, and her sad mouth, and I was nearly unable to read-- my voice cracking and nostalgic for the babies that were so grown up and the one that had not made it.  Here, I wanted to say to her father-- you have a clean slate.. what can be more urgent than this opportunity which fate can take from you any moment?  She leaned on me, this child, the way they do--with trust and affection, like a stray dog.

Tonight, January 2,  I wept in the cold-- for the already widening distance of the last year, for the missing children of my first day who are already lost in the city... for the lights, for the ghosts of the Christmas trees that lined the sidewalk on Lexington with hope and anticipation and now would be lying spent on the curb for sanitation pick-up, for the homeless men who must leave the warmth and light of the 96th Street library at 7 PM closing, for the crosstown bus driver who confessed he had no one to go home to after the night shift; for the passion and love and first nights of the past, the small family searching these buildings not so long ago for the home we discovered, for the emptiness of the future as a solitary woman who gleans from fruit vendors and thrift shops in a nondescript coat of non-recognition, trying to savor the grace of the beginning, while the world and time is thrusting us ever-forward.  We are prepared for the weather, some of us-- but not for whatever fate holds for us in the next onslaught of days and weeks and months.  I was so blindsided by 2017, trying hard to re-baptize myself into some incarnation of hope-- resolving, as we do, we perennials, to observe and honor what we are given, and to pray for another beginning when this one, too, has worn itself out.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Hark the Herald Angels

Like my father before me, I often watch Bloomberg television in the overnight.  I'm fascinated by economics, the way they graph and predict and analyze what seems the bizarre and illogical behavior of current financial markets.  It's also a little comforting, in the thin hours where late-night dissolves into dawn, to know that across the world people are awake and bustling, when you are just home from a gig  that isn't quite what you wanted it to be, and sometimes considering life-alternatives.

Apparently, according to the financial pundits, it was a healthy Christmas.  Retail in-store sales were up, despite the anticipated online shopping dominance.   Personally I didn't really buy into the holiday spirit until I met my son in Herald Square at 5:45 PM, Christmas Eve.  Everyone should have this experience once in their life; it puts capitalism in some kind of warped perspective.  To be honest, there was less panic than I'd have predicted… and we managed to score the last pair of black Timberland nu-bucks in his size.  They were more than I could afford, more than I spend in two years on my own clothing-- but he wanted them.  He wanted the same ones in 2004, but I didn't bring that up.  It's imperative to buy something I can't afford; especially something that rappers seem to endorse universally.  Of course, he'd really like a Rolex, but he'll have to wait until he can buy it himself which is imminent, I sense. As for me, I've given up the ritual of exchanging gifts with everyone else… I can scarcely manage building employee tips and they all know they earn more than I do, but it keeps us on some kind of level ground of courtesy.  God knows the value of courtesy in this city.

My son always buys me a tree-- my only wish-list; this year he gave me a phone-- for emergencies, Mom, he explains to my idiosyncratic luddite head-shaking-- an extra line came with a huge discount in his bill, and a free phone… so I had to concede, even though I will not carry it.  He  knows me well; I have a history of wondering at the yearning of most people for what they do not have, and not often wanting what I get.   My childhood Christmases, after initial dismay that Santa did not leave me a horse, were not materially memorable.  I spent long days shopping, wrapping, and crafting things for everyone with my babysitting income.  I loved the giving.  Presents for me were generally the little-sister version of whatever my mother had selected from my sister's hefty list, which included prices and sums.  My Nana knew me best; she gave me boxes of scraps and spools of thread for making doll clothes-- rocks and old stamps for projects.  These were my treasures.

One year my Mom gave me Judy Collins' 'Wildflowers'.  It was the first record album that was designated mine and not communal like the scratched and dog-eared Beatles and Stones in the hifi bin, and it was like a coming-of-age joy-- one of those moments that let me know my Mom really 'got' me.  I loved it to death.  Sisters of Mercy.

Another year I remember tonight: I must have been 18, planning a summer trip to Europe with my boyfriend, and I begged for cash.  Christmas morning there were the usual piles of gay-looking boxes and bags, and not a thing for me.  In the toe of my stocking, something rustled: it was a $1.  Fuming, I took off-- skipped the traditional pancake breakfast and ran downtown.  The city was deserted and I was sulking and in desperation hopped a bus back to college.  It was a day like today-- frigid and unforgiving, and when I reached my empty dorm, I found there was neither electricity nor heat.  I wept in Christmas solitude and called my boyfriend in Boston from the house-phone who consoled me and directed me back to New York.   Anyway, trying to sleep that night under piles of blankets, I heard a strange noise-- found a flashlight and discovered one of my eccentric roommates in several hats and coats in her bed reading the novels of Jane Austin.  She'd stayed behind, intellectual that she was, and not buying for a second into either the holiday or home-sweet-home.  I'd never have really known her,  had I not had this little learning excursion which also taught me that I was an adult, and had to rely on myself if I wanted something-- that home was where I was, not some kind of story-book picture.  I thus weaned myself from my sweet Mom for the second time.

I've been thinking about her all this week-- my first motherless Christmas, the first time I wrapped no gift for her.  I remember how she understood me, even though she disagreed-- how she had to align herself with my Dad and refuse to sanction or even witness my artistic and romantic ambitions, but how she'd send me something like some candy bars I loved taped together, with no card-- or an old ribbon.  How she called to cry about John Lennon when he was shot that cold December day… how she tried.  I suppose death is the final weaning.

There's a Code-Blue out tonight in New York City.  It's so cold they've directed the police to round up homeless people who are at risk outdoors.  I was in Harlem at dusk; on the steps of a familiar church where a population beds down, two cops were trying to coax a sleeper to a shelter.  I don't mind the cold, he kept saying, but I mind the shelter.  After they left, I asked if he needed something.  Plastic bags for my feet, he said, and asked about my dog.  My dog has been dead for years… but he seemed to recognize me.  You gave me a sweater one night, he told me--- you were on a balcony and it was raining, and I was digging through restaurant trash… and you brought me a blue sweater.  I remember this… I did… and I remembered seeing that sweater in the trash bin the next morning, like a dis.

It's hard for me to believe this was that homeless man whose face, I confess, I don't recall… I keep thinking he is some sort of angel or apparition; his voice was soft and resonant and musical,his leathery smile so kind.  He also gave me a bag of socks to wash; I threw them into the machine at 2 AM when no one would be there to judge.  I will take them back to him tomorrow evening even though I wonder if he will be there; it is my foot--washing opportunity-- a real Christmas gift and I resisted the temptation to buy him a new pack, but executed his wish, as he presented it.   Clean socks.  I will sort and fold them in the Christmas spirit I failed to embrace this year until now.  If he is not there, I will leave the bag along with a candle for his night, and a prayer.

This is the sort of thing my Mom frowned on; after all, she was a lady, and didn't understand this is my version of rolling bandages for soldiers as she had done in her day.  In the scriptures, the woman who washes Jesus' feet with her hair, no less, was a sinner.  I've sinned plenty, as my Mom did not, and maybe you must be a sinner to want to serve the homeless.  I'd like to think it is compassion, not guilt that compels me.  But maybe some of those smug Bloomberg guys need a bag of dirty socks left under their tree with the Rolex boxes and the new-car keys.  How about putting that on your billionaire-list, Santa? For the naughty or nice, financial sinners all-- the ones who drank the Trump tax hand-out just as happily as a Christmas egg-nog.  From your warm golf-courses and holiday Caribbean hideaways, may you dream of some human foot-washing in the arctic cold as you kneel before a man who has maybe never seen the inside of a an airplane, or a decent restaurant, or a lovely warm home, but who is closer to some version of grace than all of your graphs and statistics will ever be.

Amen and Happy New Year to all.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Santa Clause

Like an old deer in a city park, I am beginning to pick up the scent of Christmas.  When I think of shopping-- merchandise-- well, tears are all the currency I can muster; even the pounds of butter for cookies will be tough to manage this season.  Thank goodness I conned my son into picking up a bargain tree on Black Friday.  Having a good month with it makes me less guilty about kidnapping nature for selfish decor reasons.  Yes, it's a symbol, and it certainly receives plenty of love and attention in its place by the shelves of vinyl and my double bass-- but come the New Year it gets put out on the curb for recycling, stripped of its finery, and I feel like a cruel step-parent.  Anyway, it is in its domestic adolescence, still drinking up water and I love the smell.  It is my companion, my forest.  I wake mornings to the banging radiator and the piney ghost-aura of Christmases past.

I am closing in on another lifeline benchmark;  it is also the first holiday without my mother.  She would not have believed my age; during our last visits, she refused to believe the woman before her was truly me.  My daughter, she laughed quizzically with those famous eyebrows roof-high?  My daughter is young and so beautiful.  You-- you're not my daughter!  I had to agree, in the end.  I am no longer that girl; I am quite someone else, becoming, every year, still another version of this woman in whose skin I feel not quite myself ('Mice elf', as Sly with cleverness observed).

On Saturday afternoons I often gallery-sit.  It provides a little extra income and keeps my finger in the art pie where all of them once wallowed and explored.  I take the train to Union Square and walking west I can't help observing there is a blossoming colony of homeless or hapless people-- most of them young, with signs, blankets, home goods, possessions, wares for sale.  There are couples and small groups.  Many of them have pets-- dogs, cats on leads, animals wearing sweaters and T-shirts, bandanas and hats, reminding me of the old Tompkins Square population from the 1970's.  There is money in their cups and bowls; tourists and locals chat and pet the animals who are the pimps, in a way, for donations.  People are uncomfortable with poverty and homelessness, but the animals seem to be an ice-breaker.  Many of the young people are reading; they might be students living on the edge, relying on charity to make room and board.  These days I have so little extra; a few dollars each month and my own skill at thrift keeps me from the street.  I pass, I empathize, I apologize silently, and I say a prayer thanking God for another  month of eking by.

There is coffee at the gallery.  The space is luxe and white and the reverb is perfect for recording vocals.  The objects are expensive and beautiful.  I am comfortable with these; I understand their history and their context.  The irony of my life is that I was brought up in museums, among cultural institutions-- I studied art and history and architecture and despite the extreme financial circumstances which ally me with the culture of homelessness, I am steeped in the love and lore of art and at home in this place.  During the week salespeople and stylists and media-experts bring clients in and out; on Saturdays it is church-like; no one calls, and celebrities and billionaires come in to shop low-profile-style.  We are connected by affection and understanding of these things despite the fact that I cannot even afford to buy lunch.  I also encourage students and passersby to browse; I am instructed not to let anyone use the bathrooms but find this kind of rule difficult to enforce.  I am a populist and also know, from years of gallery work, all visitors deserve the same hospitality.

This week there was a plumbing issue and the bathrooms were off limits.  Mid-afternoon, in the first snow of the year, a young woman came in-- wet and snow-dusted, wide-eyed and sweet-faced, and asked to use the washroom.  I had to explain-- felt a tiny pang of awkwardness, knowing the policy of places like this one… but she was cordial and spent some time looking around.  I was speaking on the phone to a relative, admitting my dark mood and still coming to terms with the sad week I'd had-- the loss of another close friend and musician.  I'd been not just on the verge of tears all week… in fact, since the fall leaves began to turn, I haven't been the same, as my Mom might have pointed out, had she lived another season.  The girl left; I apologized again.  

Maybe it was the weather-- the beautiful quiet snow, the dark afternoon, the Christmas lights through the window,  the hangover from yet another funeral, the sense of the dying year… but I was feeling bleak and isolated.  Gigs are getting sparse-- book sales are slow, my holiday calendar is quite blank.  I will see my son-- he will have a brief rest from his work; maybe it is his missing father-- his slightly handicapped childhood, but he rarely expresses much emotion.  He seems so 'normal'-- I do not often expose him to my 'shadow'.  His father-- my husband-- was a happy-go-lucky boyish sort of person who embraced love and marriage with great alacrity, but not so much the 'to the exclusion of all others' clause.   I never nagged or complained; I left.  It didn't bother me that he never sent a penny; only when he complained to the next crop of spouses that he was crippled from child support payments.

At the end of the afternoon a girl came in again--- left something on the desk-- I was about to call after her, when I saw it was the same girl-- and she'd left a lovely wrapped cookie… with a note, saying I seemed to need some cheer-- and whatever it was, she could tell I was a strong woman and would overcome the darkness.  I burst into tears-- like the touch of angel.   It wasn't just that in this culture of phone-addiction and shallow human interaction it's so rare someone actually reaches out to a human (as opposed to a sad dog), but also that I remembered being that person-- the one who felt things, whose daily empathy called for these gestures and this sort of gift-giving and random affection to strangers.  It isn't just that I look different as I age, but that my limited lifestyle has also limited my generosity of soul.  I cried for my lost heart, for the girl I was and now suddenly missed so terribly, realizing my mother was maybe more astute than I knew.

I locked up and went back uptown in a cloud of quiet tears camouflaged by the falling snowflakes, mourning not just my friends but my old self… trying hard to absorb the Christmas message.  After my solitary spartan supper at home, I found her cookie-- realizing with a bit of horror it had been so long since I'd treated myself to anything-- and I loved every bit; it was healthy and handmade and filled with festive ingredients and just so good.  While I was busy worrying, struggling to maintain my minimal post-parental life in the 21st-century city which is not kind to the poor and the non-spending population, I had neglected more important things-- my soul, my heart, my own kindness not just to others but to myself.  Thanking you, Kayleigh (she signed the note) for reminding me; maybe you are truly an angel, the ghost of my Christmas past, come to bring me not just a gift, but-- like the old story, an awakening.