Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Cheer

This year I got smart. I used the internet to search good deals on fresh trees in Manhattan. Only every single entry suggested somewhere in Queens or Staten Island. Tough for those of us with a UK driver’s license and no car.

Then there’s Home Depot….$30 for the tree, $75 for the delivery. Unless you’re buying a new dishwasher. Then it’s half price. A typical NYC bargain. So I enlisted someone to drive me out there. Not a single tree left. Some needles and a sign in the parking lot where they were. It looked like December 27th.

In my hood they’ve got one of those stalls on Lexington… the wreaths and ribbons, the stand, the huge LED sign across the fence reminding us---canned corny Christmas music blaring from mounted speakers….trees divided by the little heated house—one side the Douglas firs and the cheapies…the other side the balsams…$100 and up. Around the corner a few rejects chained to a wooden post like old horses, waiting it out. The yellow-tags. A tall one in there… no branches in the mid-section, losing its needles—my kind of tree. I offer to take it off their hands. 'Seventy bucks,' the man with the graying ponytail informs me. He can see from my coat that I’m not bidding on a balsam, but he resents everyone in Manhattan. After all he’s wearing an orange jumpsuit and selling Christmas trees on a street corner. Inside the house the guys have ordered take-out. Sushi. I guess tips are good.

I turn and wait it out.

December 21. Actually December 22nd…2 AM. The reject pile is growing. It’s the coldest night of the year. Wind…freezing rain. The night shift is asleep in the pickup. My son suggested he could pick them off and no one would notice. I give him the look. They’re fucking TREES, he snaps. And somewhere he’s right. These are offerings of nature. Someone cut them down in their prime, and is now asking to be paid for such an offense. He should be punished.

But I’m still a buyer. And the guy knows I’m a beggar. I can’t use the ‘I’ll take it off your hands’ approach. I can’t imply it’s for a poor family who can’t afford it, because that’s the truth, and it’s for us.

I knock lightly on the cab window. The guy opens his eyes, rolls the window dow about an inch. 'I told you yesterday,' his look says…'I can get $75 for that tree.' He is not getting out of a warm truck for the likes of me.

The overnight crosstown bus passes me…driver stops and calls out. Many nights he and I are alone on this bus when I come from work. He greets me… 'Would you be willing to let me on this bus with a tree?' 'Mama—for you? Anything!' he assures me. Merry Christmas.

I move on. The Second Avenue Subway-construction mess has pretty much wrecked business for the vendors there….but from a funky old bar, the smell of Christmas as a few college-aged kids spill out onto the street. They are heading uptown. I approach them…'Anybody know where I can buy a reasonable tree in this neighborhood?' 'Sure,' they say. 'Up around 104th. We’ll walk you.' So off we go uptown. They are from New Hampshire…good kids… at 101st they turn off and I’m on my own. The streets are deserted except a couple of homeless guys collecting cardboard and cans.

The blocks are long… across the street is the Projects…colored lights everywhere. I wonder if Benefit Cards buy trees. Lights. Anyway, at 103rd, I catch sight of a row of evergreen… tall, great trees… both sides of the sidewalk. A white guy with a southern accent in a grungy old parka comes out…a beard…my age…grey. Tall. I ask him about prices…$55, he tells me… $45 over here. Literally one fourth of the ones at Lexington. I pick out a 9-footer—- thin, but great bone structure. How about $40? 'Done,' he says. Merry Christmas. Saws off the end, wraps it up, and shows me how to balance it across my arms. If I can make it to the crosstown, I’m home free.

But this is tough work. Suddenly…across the street, I hear a rhythmic tapping sound in the silent night. There on the projects playground, a boy… 2:30 AM…in the freezing mist, the slippery pavement.. in sweats and a hoodie…his parka hooked onto the fence-links, shooting…dribbling… dodging… back and forth.. rebounding, hooking, weaving..around his invisible defender ..jumping… his breath in bursts of mist... Suddenly I had a jolt…—like the thrill might be gone everywhere… but here it is on this deserted,freezing icy 2 AM court. A kid, feeling the Kobe Bryant rush…..not a soul watching…...maybe he won’t make it but he is dreaming about it…... that feeling... 11 days off from school and it's the first night... and Christmas coming and you might get something.. Knicks tickets…Jordans. I could have stood there all night... but I had to carry my tree home.

And suddenly I had the strength of an old Atlas. With the scent of pine in my frozen nostrils, I walked back and all the way up the crosstown hill. Busdriver honked as he passed. I was home free, just like those dumb Walton old-style holiday films. Me and the tree. The kid and his basketball. Oh spirit of Santa, I think, as I drape my old strands of colored lights on my still freezing symbol of holiday and Vermont nature…bring that kid something good. Bring him a future-- a winning shot,--the never-ending dream of Christmas. Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The 'Santa' Clause

Looking on my windowsills, how many more cards can I count with someone’s cute kid sitting on Santa’s lap rattling off the toys they’re expecting? Or these days, a little person with a kid-blackberry texting his list.

Just waiting on Macy’s massive snaking Santa-line should tip off any young believer that no celestial sleigh could hold enough toys to satisfy this pre-noon store crowd, let alone all the children in the world. But kids at Christmas choose not to think logically; or maybe they know they’ll get more from the grown-ups by playing innocent just a little longer. Whatever. Despite the thousands of Santas everywhere in Manhattan alone, kids are still making a list and checking it twice.

There ought to be a few rules….like if it doesn’t fit through the chimney, it’s probably not a reasonable request. Like an SUV…or a sailboat. A polar bear. These aren’t Santa-esque gifts.

Last year I was surprised more mortgage brokers weren’t dressed up as Santa Claus, holding court in real estate offices, enticing first-time buyers to come sit on their lap and read aloud the qualities of their dream-house. Because a ton of these Santa-mortgages were stuffed down the financial chimneys of homeowners who couldn’t possibly have accommodated such instruments.

So my question this year is: where is the Santa ‘clause’? The 5-year warranty or guarantee that this overstuffed gift is going to be serviced, maintained and supported by the giver? Did any kid get an internet-ready device with the broadband pre-paid? A new phone with the plan already in place? The Santa clause instead seems to imply that once dropped down the chimney---’no backs’.

Same with the mortgages. Now that these Christmas dreamhouse payments have ballooned, where is Santa? How many homeowners in default are waiting on line at Macy’s for the disguised real-estate elf who last year patted their cheek and shook their hand and went off to prepare the paperwork which awarded them an enormous palace that couldn’t fit down 20 chimneys? But they believed in Santa Claus. They believed in America and the reindeer and burned the 2006 Yulelog and bought their kids even bigger presents to go in their super-sized new rooms. Some of them bought extra vehicles to go in the new huge garage. A friend of mine got a pool. Unfortunately he lives in Georgia where global warming irregularities have caused an unprecedented and worrisome water shortage which disallows shower use on odd days, and mandates that all pools remain empty. But the Santa clause prevents him from complaining. No returns on pools. Like ice-skates. No one guarantees the lakes will freeze. Make your own ice.

For those of you who asked Santa for money last year, your 2006 gift is now worth even less. But 'No backs,' says the Santa clause. The government will take your house, though. They’ll take it and give you bad credit in exchange. What kind of clause is that?

In fact the Santa clause may indirectly take away my personal tax money or lower interest rates once again in favor of the banks. Merry Christmas 2007. Which makes me a loser for trying to save money. Interest rates on my savings account don’t even keep up with rising milk prices. A penny saved is still a penny? Barely. In England it isn’t even worth a half-penny. At the grocery, cashiers used to disallow Canadian coins. Now they want them.

So think twice about what you wish for while sitting on the lap of a man with a fake beard and a padded red suit who is probably working on commission and needs the money. Maybe you’re better off going to church and putting some coins in the collection plate for starving children and thanking God that you are going to any home to sit by the Yule log and read the traditional version of the Santa Claus story which you can buy very cheaply for your children in any bookstore under ‘Fiction’.

Oh. I almost forgot to wish you a Merry Christmas. And drive carefully, Santa.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Pink Christmas

I left MTV on while I was working. Or maybe it was VH1. There used to be a difference. A point of view. Now of course there is no music on either one unless it is 3 AM which is when I work. The rest of the programming day is endless repeats of reality shows. And previews of reality shows to come. Point of view? Another column.

Suddenly one of the lyrics somehow pierced my field-of-listening: Farewell to Mediocrity. I smiled with acknowledgment of something between irony and humor before I had the opportunity to check the visual which was another aged 25-30 male generic post-emo band treading the stagnant tepid audio waters along with the other hoardes of clueless band-members in dark clothing like shipwrecked flailing contestants for Survival in a virtual sea of regurgitated mediocrity.

Anyway, by the time the sun came up I felt as though I’d overdosed on M&Ms. The blue ones. I took a shower to wash off the residue of mediocrity and somehow in the frigid air of my prewar bathroom without heat, I had one of those lyrical flashbacks from childhood: The North Wind doth blow,/ and we shall have snow…/and what will poor robin do then,/ poor thing? /She’ll sit in the barn /to keep herself warm /and tuck her head under her wing,/ poor thing.

This being a pre-mediocrity memory, I was actually moved. I remembered toddler-staring at the picture in the book of this freezing bird even though everyone knows robins fly south in winter and as a future editor I should have been thinking 'how did they get away with this?' But I actually felt myself tearing up in the old shower. Not just nostalgia. I remembered I was born with sympathy, with compassion, with an uncanny ability to cry.

These days if you cry, you are branded like Ellen deGeneres on that show as a quasi-psycho or an unmedicated menopausal casualty or-- like Oprah-- a sexual-abuse survivor. Your friends squirm and your doctor tells you ‘You deserve to be happy’, and hands you a prescription for Paxil or Zoloft.

So have we given up the privilege of crying along with our post-9/11 unalienable rights? Have we traded sympathy for suspicion? When they renovated the Statue of Liberty did they leave the inscription, the ‘Give me your tired, your poor…send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me’ even though it now should read ‘Give me your Investment Bankers and your thick-walleted tourists, your outsourced computer-literate who are willing to perform sophisticated programming jobs for less-than minimum wage, your leggy Eastern-European athletes and models who enhance our magazine covers and sports teams, your Dubai-based oil-barons and billionaires who are buying up American hotels and department stores and real estate like Christmas trinkets?

Last night when I came in, this homeless guy was shivering outside my building. Standing in the bus shelter which offers no shelter, just a backlit half-naked model. A kind of warmth. So after a cup of hot tea I rummaged through my closet and found a thick woolen man’s sweater. A nice one. A warm one I wear on cold mornings. Clean. I took it down to him and tried not to look him in the eye, tried not to expect gratitude. He looked at it with suspicion. It’s clean, I said. In the morning it was covered with newspaper and crushed Starbucks cups and plastic-wrapped dogshit in the public trashcan. I guess some things are too far gone. Maybe it was like offering a band-aid to someone with a gushing gunshot wound. Maybe it was condescending and heartless.

But I wanted that sweater. I loved that sweater. I want to cry for that sweater but I can’t let my neighbors see me rummaging through the public garbage. My investment-banker neighbor upstairs who caused a massive flood in my ceiling and owes me the $1600 it cost me to repair it one year later. It took me one year to put aside that money, living with cardboard and construction tape and dust and debris raining every time someone walked upstairs. One year of cutting back on our $10-a-day rule in our no-vacation, no-takeout, no-movies and no-debt life. Of inconspicuously taking the excess bread from a local restaurant so I can save money on my little contribution to the homeless mother and daughter who bathe in our local Starbucks bathroom every day. Who annoy people in line because they ask for a cup of hot water and pay a quarter. I don’t care if they’re scamming people as my rich neighbors claim. They’re cold. The tired and the poor. Saying that makes me cry. Info-mercials make me cry. Tonight I might cry because I can’t afford a tree this year. Even a skinny near-dead one like last year. Because I can’t afford to tip the nice doormen and porters the investment-banker/new tenants in my building insist on, to receive their packages and dry cleaning. The doormen who earn maybe three times what I earn, even though my neighbor doesn’t know this.

I wanted that sweater not just because it meant something to me, but because I need it. I might cry for that sweater but I can’t let my investment-banker neighbor-- the one who earns and spends seven figures—-I can’t let him see me because then he’ll never pay me. That’s the warped socioeconomics of our time and in some strange way the same reason the homeless guy threw the sweater in the trash in the first place.

So if a fictional robin freezes in a barn, and no one sees, no one even reads the poem because the books are obsolete and tears are only a sign of mental illness, what is contemporary compassion? I-sharing music on myspace? Pink the pop-star has a new video of a live stadium performance of ‘Dear Mr. President’. Even though it is VHI or MTV and it is 5AM when no sane human is actually watching or listening, the photos behind her are perhaps unretouched. See them and weep.

Merry Christmas, Pink.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

All Men Created Random

I’ve been noticing lately an enormous spike in the frequency of occurrence of the word ‘random’. In news articles, on television. Politically--- it is becoming a catch-all, an excuse-word—a generic non-response when the speaker chooses not to incriminate himself with details. ‘Some random restaurant’ he had lunch in…’some random man on the street’ he’d canvassed. And of course, in an election year, we are given more than our daily fill of ‘random’ polls and surveys, implying a non-effort to non-target any one group or strata. Which also implies that each sampled opinion has an absolutely equal opportunity to be solicited. Like lotto numbers; although anyone who has studied gambling odds is well aware that all numbers, however random, are not exactly created equally on the board of chance. In fact, a recent UK survey shows the number ‘38’ appears in the National Lottery with nearly 50% greater frequency than the number 20. Figure that one out.

But most of all, in daily, colloquial conversation, random seems maybe to be replacing the obsolescing word ‘dude’. My son uses it on the cellphone when I attempt to ascertain his whereabouts. He is in some random store, or on some random street-corner. When I ask him who he is taking to 'some' party, the quick response is some random girl, on either side of which is the implied ‘none of your f—ing business’.

A man shoving his way onto a rush-hour 4 train today asked one of the people crammed halfway into the doorway to get his random-ass on the f---ing train. Ah, I thought. This man is acquainted with my son.

And it’s not as though this is a new concept. Many cab-drivers in New York City seem to select the random route between two points. The IRS apparently uses random selection rather than probability to verify our tax returns. Apparently to the detriment of us poor tax-paying slobs because we pay the salaries of the IRS auditors who do not always come up with money which justifies their efforts. But according to the papers today, a rather conspicuous and successful restaurateur had failed to pay a massive tax bill and was randomly ignored until another government employee was paid with additional tax money to investigate this rather huge and blatant evasion. And ironically, while pocketing his payroll and sales taxes, along with under-reported profits he was also pocketing generous small-business post-9/11 grants which were being given out a bit too randomly.

In several recent mass-murder scenarios, the gunmen shot at apparently random victims whose families now find themselves overwhelmed with the horrific, tragic and unspeakably random sentence of grief for the holidays.

Regarding our upcoming elections, one wonders whether the same polled random selection of the population will actually vote, and whether they will vote deliberately and with intelligence or will be unaquainted with many candidates because they were busy watching reruns of ‘Tila Tequila—A Shot at Love’ and will merely hit random levers in the booth because one or two names sound familiar.

At random moments during the day, I find myself terrified by the prospect of not only random errors in the electoral process which will irreversibly affect the course of history, but also random incidents which might catastrophically affect our world. Hurricane Katrina destroyed my friend’s home in New Orleans, while on either side, the houses seemed miraculously or randomly undamaged. One begins to wonder.

And mathematically, we are told that patterns that seem random because they are more complex than the average brain can comprehend, are actually pseudorandom.
I love this word and can imagine it becoming the new ‘rad’ which I secretly suspect is some abbreviated form of random.

In fact, as I see it, the epidemic of apathy and entitlement in America has created a new culture which, rather than seeking responsibility for such phenomena as weather or poverty or cancer, is now putting them into the rather innocent white dress of random.

Could it be a conspiracy? I just opened a book I was sent to review and noted ironically it was published by Random House. Is that why I found it insipid and not worth reading? Will I awaken and find New York City has been renamed City of Random? Sounds more credible than Duane Reade. Less ‘calculated’.

So as I see it, random is the new whiteface, the new cover-up for calculated and intentionally premeditated, pseudorandom acts for which no one wants to take responsibility in this new society of the Entitled-but-all-too-often-Clueless. Perhaps George Bush should have had his boys out looking for Weapons of Random Destruction in Iran. Maybe we should amend our prayer-books to ask God’s protection from not just the evil and unfortunate, but random acts of the universe.

And before long, expect the next person who serves you your Big Mac or Starbucks venti to be wearing a nametag that says ‘Random’. Totally.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

HIJACKED!

Does anyone else out there besides chickens and rabbits live in a coop? In the old days this was a democratic sort of housing arrangement whereby homeowners were able to own and maintain their building in a way that benefited individual residents and provided group protection in the form of insurance, tax benefits, and a bit of control over quality of life. The Board or governing body was democratically elected and voluntarily bound to make decisions in the best interest of the group. Coop stood for co-operative. Cooperation. Working Together. Old-fashioned values. Recycling protocol. Safety issues. Owner control of service contracts. Grass-roots ownership of the ‘company’ stock. Economy. Volunteer gardening, architectural advice, in-house counsel. A bit of urban Utopia.

Welcome to the 21st century where any semblance of grass-roots values has been mowed down by the breed of greedy Pacmen who make clever financial decisions for our country. Take the sub-prime mortgage scheme. What a novel idea. I’m surprised none of these inventive people were nominated for the Nobel prize because this was a truly visionary concept, was it not? To offer the less fortunate of us the opportunity to live briefly in a fairy-tale version of their life for absolutely no money down, while the giggling bankers pocketed commissions on both ends of these loans?

In fact, one of these men has made enough money with these fantasy commissions to buy up not one or two but many, many apartments in my building which he has combined and extended into a living space billions of times larger than his brain. Sadly, now that these loans are being called in, the clever architects seem to be hiding. Everyone seems to have passed the buck. So it lands in the lap of the overburdened, nearly-obsolete middle-class taxpayer--you and me. The new American camels.

And have these meddlesome middlemen lost their homes… or even their jobs? Negative. Layoffs are for the non-monied. For the camels, rabbits and chickens. These guys were clever enough to have invested their profits. Too late for the whistle-blowers and us horrified old-school honest mortgage-payers. They are my neighbors now. In the newly converted one-syllable version of ‘Coop’, because that is what they have made of their honest, democratic, considerate, cooperative neighbors from the 20th century. And in a great distortion of the old system, the largest and fattest of the neighbors have the most votes, so the rest of us must eat our cake with a generous dusty layer of sawdust and plaster from endless renovations while they are temporarily renting in quiet buildings. Or vacationing with their buddies in Dubai and Anguilla. Or living temporarily with their rich parents on Park Avenue in buildings which would never have allowed the sort of ‘coup’ they have pulled in mine.

And because they now occupy the most space here, besides being the loudest, they now occupy the pivotal majority seats on the Board. Is this because they were democratically elected? I would compare our coop elections to the Al Gore Florida vote-count. It was a behind-the-curtains manipulation, with bribes and telephone calls. A few threats, although, of course, we are unable to mention these now, because our management company keeps us in check. They as well stand to profit from the in-house transfers of shares, roof-right purchases, mortgage arrangements vis-a-vis these financial wizards. And other secret arrangements we are not allowed to know about, because we are the chickens and rabbits in the coop and we are not allowed to view the books or see the checks which they have written to one another with our money. Their personal architects have now been contracted to renovate the lobby. Referrals in this business are always appreciated with a generous commission. Their contractors, as well, who hire illegal Chinese laborers who receive a tiny fraction of union wages and who continue to use ropes and home-made pulleys to create unending noise in our courtyard where all of the second-class tenants live. Because this is the new American way. And if we complain, they might decide to build a luxury hotel on our poor old coop-roof. Or a parking garage. A casino. Their architects tell them this is ‘feasible’. No matter that our ceilings are caving in and our pipes bursting from their existing renovations. Not their problem. Nor their expense. We-the-oldtimers must pay for their errors. They are busy selling themselves the air-rights for next-to-nothing, so they can make Wall-Street-scale profits and keep them for themselves. And come to think of it, wasn't 'feasible' the descriptive adjective used by 9 of 10 board-certified plastic-surgeons as they prepared to swipe the credit card just before Kanye West's late mother's recent procedure? For those who didn't ace their SAT's, 'feasible' is nowhere a synonym for responsible, safe, reliable or recommended.

They have even drilled through our 100-year-old brick wall to put windows in our landmarked building. Of course this was in the courtyard. The management does not take the calls of chickens and rabbits. Do you remember the 1990’s when there was a general shake-down of corrupt coop management, with exposure of kickbacks and padded service contracts? These were days of relative innocence, because this has now become the norm. This is the way the 21st century does business. Every single contracted professional is now in the pocket of these people whose only motive in life is: you guessed it---profit. This is their own personal fantasy corporation. They are the CEOs, the Chairmen of the Board, the young monied overdressed and spoiled who had the fortune to have ‘come of age’ in the Reagan Era, and superimposed these values on the rest of us who remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy and listened to Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix in small clubs. Who swore we would change the world. And that we would fight for peace and equality. That we would listen. That we would not harm or disturb our neighbors in the name of greed. Doesn’t this sound familiar? Like a constitutional right? Like one of the Ten Commandments? Like something from any one of the Gospels? Does anyone read?

Not. Welcome to America in the 21st century.

Help, I say. My building has been hijacked. It is being flown by disrespectful and inconsiderate terrorists that enjoy driving the seated majority into a nightmarish destination that was not mentioned on the tickets we carefully purchased not so many years ago with our hard and honestly-earned dollars. Not the inflated devalued excessive amounts our new pilots have paid with their disproportionate profits of disgrace. And here is the thing. We want our plane back. We the people. But we are seatbelted and tied. Quiet, the hijackers say. You are bothering us. We are busy flying with $100-a-barrel oil directly to the pot of gold in which we are also heavily invested.

Does anyone remember John Galt?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Dead Poet's Society

I have this secret habit. I write poems. Yeah, I know…everybody writes poems. The goddamn bank teller at Chase has self-published. She gave me a copy last summer—it was called “poems in the key of life” (now where have we seen that before?)…no capitals, no punctuation….lines like ‘i wonder if u feel this too’. I told her I was jealous. When the word came out, I was trying desperately to be truthful. So I am jealous. I’m jealous of her perfect little manicured nails when she counts out the bills. I’m maybe jealous of the fact that she is published and I am not.
I’m leaving the bank with this image in my head of a pile of cubed jello on a plate because that is the way I processed ‘jealousy’ when I was like 4 years old and it somewhere sticks to that whacked-up part of my brainmess that compels me to form word-images that I produce as poetry.

Do I read the status-quo stuff? I do. And let me say, Writerless is a little disappointed in a lot of the crap they publish these days under the category. I get the Knopf poem-a-day email in April, National Poetry Month and sure, there are one or two in there that I can admire, but for the most part you figure someone is doing something to someone and pulled off this deal. The poetry editor (in the old days they used to tell us ‘those who can, write; those who can’t…edit’) herself puts out volumes that are of the caliber you might expect from your childrens’ middle-school literary online magazine. The one that doesn’t discriminate, the one with the millennial policy which dictates ‘a page for every child’. At least.

Have I ever submitted the stuff? I admit. Yes. Paris Review. Agni. Atlantic Monthly. Like buying a lottery ticket. They receive 100,000 per year…which averages out to about 500 poems a day for the poor overwrought poetry editor who has her own mediocre poetry to write in her head while she peruses yours and does desk-yoga and texts her boyfriend, edits her grocery list and fantasizes about lunch.

I’ve got a friend, a fairly successful (i.e. ‘employed-as-writing-teacher') poet, who claims that you’ve got to subscribe to the ‘system’…you have to enroll in a university MFA program, network, pay academic dues in the form of tuition and your reward is maybe one piece published in the university literary journal---a poetic ‘foot’ in the door. An iambic or dactylic pass onto the next level… another publication…

I suppose I could lie, use the name of my friend… say I’ve been published years ago, that I’m recovering from an aneurism and have renewed my career which predates online verification, but I refuse. I am resigned to posthumous success at best. At least I won’t be there to receive the rejection letter.

Anyway, I confess I recently applied for a short-term Advanced Poetry Workshop. Although the title confuses, a local fairly decent poet was running this, requiring manuscript submission, a certain level of seriousness, etc. So I printed out, Xeroxed, submitted-in-triplicate. Paid the $10 fee against all personal principles. Actually got accepted, was told that for the privilege of paying $800 I could attend 4 afternoon sessions with this woman and 4 other aspiring poets. So I replied that I was so grateful for the opportunity of having my work read, which was worth $10, but was not in a financial position to come up with $800.

They replied, offered me the chance of a scholarship. 50% off. This converts to $25 an hour, to read probably mediocre poetry written by people who were willing to shell out $800 for an audience. What if I am unable to repress a sneer? What if there is someone in a wheelchair with ALS who is writing their fears and I am coldly ticking off dollars-per-minute regret? So I declined, again.

What am I willing to pay, they now asked me. Could they be desperate? Could it be they lack their quota? But they also assure me there is a huge waiting list. Move on to the waiters, I reply. I am just so sick of begging. I can’t fill out any more forms. The humiliation of being a musician had made this no longer possible. I’d rather play the subway than apply for a grant. I’d rather die with my one brilliant comment from the New York Times and my dysfunctional wasted career.

Besides, I smugly know better than anyone when my poetry sucks and it generally does. One or two can pass the six-month or one-year test, but most of them are pretty mediocre. At least I have the perspective to acknowledge my own mediocrity which is comforting, in a way, because there is always the chance I will break through this designation.

So tonight once again I will sit and struggle with lines and lyrics, I will consult my daily scribbles which I occasionally mistake for literary epiphany, and continue to envy the bank teller not only her nails but the fact that she is proud of her work and generously self-promotes to someone like me who has at most a 3 OR 4-digit account balance. Also I maybe envy the fact that she has something to send her relatives for Christmas because despite my constant gigs and efforts, it has been years since I’ve had any kind of ‘product’.

And if there’s anyone out there reading, I am not going to offer the satisfaction here of a link or an appended poem. You’ll have to wait for the posthumous volume. Unless, of course, I win the poet’s lottery (laureattery?). Incidentally, do any of you know which fine contemporary poet is credited for ‘Gotta be in it to win it’?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Joker

I passed Bloomingdale’s the other night…the Third Avenue windows are featuring Andy Warhol, in some tribute or nostalgic fashionista sort of cheap reference. My favorite Andyquote on a placard in one display was ‘Art is what you can get away with”. Of course as anyone who actually studied art or tried to make some kind of cultural sense out of what now wears the art label, this is so ironically far from Truth, as Warhol well knew, and yet so aphoristically appropriate. Warhol, the cultural oracle, strikes again.

Of course Fashion has always been about what one can get away with. The Emperor’s New Clothes, etc. New York City is the capital centre. I live in a building of all-Emperors, now… wearing their bank-accounts, mentally naked as a jaybird. Of course, they point at me. I am badly dressed, vote like an old liberal, don’t tip the staff because they make more than I do, are maybe socio-economically in a higher strata, it seems pretentious and absurd-- besides, the staff is better clothed than I am. In fact I single-handedly lower the average income of my fellow tenants by double percentage points.

But I do know something about art. If I had an art portfolio I’d run it like a value manager. Value managers aren’t quite keeping up with the astounding geometric increases in money-stash of the hedge-fund rockstars. But also they know something about history.
The high-beta purchases of this market are certainly risky and for the short-term, but as for me, no dividend could be high enough to convince me to put a Jeff Koons anywhere near any collection I’d describe with a capital ‘A’.

Recently a reviewer observed that the Guggenheim museum, especially decked as currently with the output of Richard Prince, rather resembles a toilet. At the auction previews this week, it was not just a question of the Emperor’s New Clothes, but an entire Bryant-Park-worthy fashion show for such merchandise. And ‘merchandise’ is the word for the relentless, aggressive marketing of the auction houses whose stock and executive bonuses will rise or fall according to the success of their campaign. They have done well, these art puppet-masters who have enticed the nouveau-riche Americans to participate in yet another version of competitive greed—this one perhaps the most risky, the least understood… because they are not owning shares of a corporation or building a personal mansion, but will purchase essentially a few dollars’ worth of linen and paint, or a concept…scrap metal… reproductions, in Warhol’s case…autographed reproductions, with often-faked or posthumously sanctioned ‘autographs’….photographs, in other cases—not even prints, as in the old days, but C-prints—computer-generated digital images for which they pay six, seven and eight figures.

And is there a Dow Jones, a Nasdaq for these things? There is not. There are no experts, no service except the auction houses whose participation in the whole hocus-pocus is financially motivated-- the very auction houses, in fact, whose directors have been subpoenaed and convicted for illegal practices. The convictions were minimal when compared to the larger picture of obscene price-fixing and absence of control in this unbridled industry. Amateurs are walking the streets hawking images of twenty million dollar paintings which investors are falling over themselves to snatch up before the next wave of price-increases. Authentification committees have been created to preside over the procedures, many of whose Board members stand to profit from the very market they presume to protect.

And the auctions—the evening sales—these are the benchmarks—the source of the waves, the parade and interactive performance of the Emperors-- the blackjack tables reserved for million-dollar bets only.

I’d like to ask one of the ‘winners’—the one who forks over his millions and takes home a cartoon porcelain pig, or a gigantic purple reflective heart—the largest bauble they will ever see, something which could cost thousands of rupees if it were ordered at an Indian bazaar…and hangs it, with the distorted image of his home, his family, his own self---reflected in its cheap sheen…what kind of trophy is this? What kind of joke has been played?

You have to give Richard Prince credit for at least having the double-edged integrity to make his paintings as earnest as possible…hey, this is a joke that you are buying…a joke. A cheap comic-book nurse reproduction on a canvas, a tasteless one-liner that will hang in the new version of the drawing room. So who has ‘won’ here?

As my old mother used to say when she passed tastelessly-dressed or badly-mannered people on the street: “Do people no longer have mirrors?”

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Survival of the Outfittest

On the crosstown bus the other day I found myself not just thinking but actually mouthing the words ‘fucking bastard’. Like I am caught in this verbal crossfire/defensive pissed-off poor-schmuck-commuter mode and I am adapting. Do you ever find yourself talking to a black person and you start coming out with things like ‘ hey, brothah… ' and you say it with quotations around it, but it is coming out of your mouth.

Or my friend from Tennessee.. When I’m on the phone saying hi to his Mom, I can sense the slightest hint of extra diphthong coming out of my mouth. Now I am supposed to be an individual, a fairly well-baked New Yorker at this point, twice removed. But here I am, succumbing to the atmosphere, trying on another one of the zillion self-styled uniforms of my fellow MTA riders…like the evolutionary species to which I belong, doing what we humans do best…adapting.

Is this a form of ‘selling out’? A manifestation of my old Dad’s favorite proverb “Lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas”? I always thought it was an oblique warning to practice safe sex. But now I appreciate the resonance of this old proverb. Lie down with dogs long enough, you begin to develop a sort of bark. So is this my excuse for the ‘edge’ I find these days slipping off my tongue like liquid razor?

We New Yorkers are known for being pissed off. Also for being incredibly hardy, tough, yet neighborly and heroic when we want to. The fact is, we’re exposed so much variety in constant barrage, there’s ample space in any given day to tune into any number of wavelengths, to try on any one of a million fashion statements.

So maybe on the bus I was doing the construction guys who’ve been working in my courtyard, whose every single expletive is decibally equivalent to the music on my apartment stereo. Funny how every single club I play can’t seem to manage anything close to an adequate sound system, and right here, out my back windows, we have Carnegie Hall-worthy acoustics.
Anyway, their personal lives have begun to seep into my consciousness, and their verbal style is beginning to slip off my tongue. I pass them sometimes, coming from the subway or on their way home, talking that macho guy-talk with the ‘fucking’ punctuating nearly every word. They have no idea who I am, even though I know all about the bald one’s extra-marital sexlife and another guy’s debt and someone’s ‘fucking cunt’ of a mother-in-law. I recognize them by their voices. I gave up trying to drown them out, along with the incessant banging and sawing that has now exceeded the reasonable renovation time-frame of a 12-story building with no power tools from the ground up.

Their soundtrack, over Charlie Parker and Miles and the trendy bands I review, are bleeding into my life—slowly and consistently like an IV drip. In fact the whole city is in my veins by now. I even have the rotten wet cold of the OR nurse who sat next to me last Tuesday, generously sharing her inner virus with every sneeze and cough.

Maybe it is my musical ‘ear’ that picks up and plays back the audio with more finesse than I am able to cop a tough bassline these days. Maybe…but it’s also become kind of ‘second nature’. My way of ‘adapting’. Urban camouflage. Survival. It also feels good sometimes, to let loose these expletives like ammunition. Thank God most New Yorkers don’t read lips. Or aren’t looking anyway. I could dis a black man’s mother at 12 inches and he wouldn’t notice because his ipod is blasting and he is in his zone. And tell me, if insulting bad language comes like a Tourette’s impulse, and everyone in the room has their earbuds in, am I going to get my face kicked in?

Maybe I’d better spend the evening listening to Shakespeare on PBS. Or barking.
Sayonara.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Networking Hive

  • Here’s a question: Is failure the inability to produce something of quality or simply lack of success? And if one has no audience, who is to judge the quality of what one produces? This is something I often grappled with at university…the fact that there should be some standard of excellence applicable to one’s endeavors…a way to not quantify but qualify art. In fact it is perhaps the lack of such apparent standards, and the nature of the true artist to perhaps initially shock, and then fail to shock…which has produced volatility in the current art market. And the contemporary art ‘audience’ has become so accustomed to shock value, that they fail to apprehend quality in something that looks traditional, boring…

    And what if the audience is not qualified to judge? Are artists the gladiators in the arena these days…or not… the fact is, it is the audience in the arena. They are placed there by 'artistic' managers. Most artists never make it there.

    I have been recently criticized for my lack of networking. This is something that not only terrifies but disgusts me. Networking is what my kids do… they spread gossip, share things which should remain private. Networking is what huge business conventions are all about… the whole corporate structure, in fact. Networking perpetrates the sad fact that a very few of the American workforce actually does a job…and these are the underpaid, the undervalued. The networkers are the busy bees that create the illusion of the hive. They run around, email, talk and text on phones, organize and ‘manage’. They get paid for creating an enormous hologram of a corporation based on a small core.

    Can you imagine a rockband with five or six guys that stand around waiting for a cue…creating a vibe? Well, actually… a good deal of contemporary music is just this…the scratchers, the dancers, the human ‘echoes’ who shout out the last word of the Hip-Hop rhyme much the way you and I used to yell out ‘Dock” and ‘Clock” when our pre-school teachers prompted us with nursery rhymes. Not just five..sometimes ten or twelve.. and backstage? Behind the scenes? The Music industry networkers? The hocus-pocus salesmen and their bodyguards and ‘boys’?
  • I was backstage at a Hip-Hop benefit recently and the box-office girl told me of the 5,000 in the house, 4,200 were on the guest list. By the time the VIPS got done ordering their champagne and caviar, the fundraiser was in the red. Bright bleeding red. But you can be sure, plenty of networking was going on there.

    I’ll just bet any of these Hip-Hop record companies can produce a fictitious being—literally anyone. Like you—or me…and create an enormous successful niche with all their networking and buzz and the engineers in the studio who now have every possible combination of beats, sounds, notes, production… at their fingertips. Like computer art, this is computer music. Complemented by these pedestrian street gangsta lyrics which sound okay but rarely make sense and if I hear bitches and riches or man and plan, finger and dead-ringer one more time I’ll yawn. Again.

    Is this success? Who created this? Is it art?

    If a poet reads his verse in the dark with no one listening, does he/it exist? And if it doesn’t exist, can it be good? Apparently I am lying in the forest of fallen neglected artists who do not make a sound when they die because no one was listening.

    My son discovered today that when you lose your ipod earbuds, there is no music. If he had only acquired the ability to think, he might take this one step further. Meanwhile, his mother, a failed networker and thus in the music business a non-entity, does not even fail to appear among the now digitally mute thousands of non-existent selections on this now useless device which hopelessly emits the unqualifiable but well-networked sounds of the hive.

    Not only are bees becoming extinct, but I read this summer that the ‘busy’ thing is a myth and most of them are unemployed and just making a lot of noise. Ouch.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Con Edited

Okay. This is a self-interested public-service announcement. I am going to complain about a personal issue here. To vent. Because I personally and that means by proxy all of you are being swindled by none other than our main source of power, the one that has brought us to our knees and threatens to do so should we fail to pay homage in the form of a grossly over-padded monthly bill. No, not our local parish or our shrink—I mean Con Ed with the emphasis on Con.

Having been semi-paralyzed by recent power outages in my hood, I decided on a gas stove—the one I was forced to buy because my neighbor’s bathtub flooded onto my kitchen and destroyed all appliances. Did I get a penny of insurance? Enough to cover my next upgraded rate hike. Whatever. I am over that. What I am not over is that after finally completing payments for my state-of-the-art range including the $300 plumbing fee to attach a hose, someone in my building smells gas (not mine) and the whole system is shut down. Not for a week or two weeks. For two months. And not the whole building—just my line, where the leak was located, below me. And the public laundry facilities which are used by the underprivileged few without a private laundry room, meaning me, and the superintendent who can afford to send out. So I spend many summer nights, with my broken foot, dragging wet laundry into other people’s basements where I get to spend late hours with the rats while feeding quarters to ravenous dryers. Not to mention that I was forced to buy an electric kettle and frying pan to cook with, because I certainly can’t afford takeout for growing teenagers.

Okay. I adjust. And the moment my gas is shut down, I record my meter reading: 741. Right. I continue to observe my meter throughout the summer, which seems somehow to be moving. When I call Con Ed to inform them of this, I am told by one helpful employee that ‘wow, that is like impossible’, and by the next that..’oh yes, the meter keeps moving like a clock—whether there’s gas or not’. Anyway, when the gas is finally restored, 2 months later, my meter has clocked an additional 13 therms. I have continued to receive estimated bills throughout the summer which I ignore…no gas, no charge, right? At least I am saving somewhere… although I’m sure the extra cookware is using more electrical juice than I can afford. I actually force Con Ed to send someone by appointment to check my meter and log this figure on the day I resume gas consumption…question this man about the miracle of the moving meter, and receive some consolation that we will be credited for all service outage.

I call on September 6, give them my new meter reading—have used 1 therm in 11 days.. pretty credible… the guy on the phone tells me I have a $14 credit. Thank you, I say. But today…I get a bill for $144.00 with various hocus pocus figures and credits which go back to January and after a high-decibel conversation with a calm Con (ed) artist, it seems in 4 months, with no gas use at all for 2 and minimal use for the last one (addicted to the electric pan, I am) I have used more fuel than in the entire year of 2006.

What about the guy who guaranteed I owed nothing? Forget him. He’s gone. Mistake.
Why does this remind me of my teenage son who when he comes home 3 hours late, screaming and accusing me of some horrific maternal crime? Not only am I being swindled, ripped off, and punished for their deficit, but I was humiliated by the phone agent who accused me of trying to wriggle out of my bill which was months outstanding. Would you pay for gas you aren’t receiving? Estimated bills for imaginary gas while you are spending time and energy and CASH finding alternate energy sources? Where is the compensation? When I had my flood the insurance company advised me to get a hotel room and bill my neighbors. Right. My life was completely zonked for 2 years and my neighbors didn’t even pay for a mop. Or apologize. The building management switched and the new people don’t know anything about it. The former company won’t return my calls. I’m no longer a client. In fact I have maybe the status of a rat which we all know outnumber the citizens of Manhattan by like 8 to 1.

So who is going to stand up to Con Ed for me? My building management which has literally never returned my calls because I am the smallest shareholder in the building and have no loud-mouthed husband in a suit with a job that has priority over building-management employee? I wear jeans, carry a musical instrument and do not have a cellphone or a housekeeper. This translates as ‘delete all messages’. My loudmouth kids? They scream at me, not for me.

I spend my Saturday trying to reason with Con Ed agents who get paid well for refusing to participate in logical or feasible conversations with anyone who has an issue with a bill. In fact, they assure me I am lucky they didn’t charge me more, that this seems in fact ‘cheap’ and they just might really charge me next month, or cut my gas off again if I think I am consuming conspicuously and might have a leak. How about my neighbor who caused the shutdown? Accountability? Forget about it. Go play your guitar.

If I could return the goddam stove I’d happily do without. I’ll use sterno until my son goes off to college. I’ll rub sticks together. I went to a consumer site online where there was a complaint from a couple with a small apartment who received an electric bill for $1,700. Not one response because everyone is busy watching the tennis. In case you are reading, couple in Nolita, I feel for you. I will dedicate a song to you tonight. Maybe if the 3 of us band together, we will have the power of a dead rat against these Con artists. Is anyone out there? Anyone willing to boycott and use candles? Anyone that realizes these people have us by the balls and threaten to cut our lifelines if we don’t overpay?
Maybe I can harness the rats to run an alternative power wheel. Hilary? Mike? Barak? Mr. Skilling? Is anyone listening?

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Unnatural Selection Part 1

Watching the BBC at 6 AM, I get a bit panicky about how little of the real world-news is filtered into our Manhattan apartments. Our Senator Craig’s little escapade certainly sucked airwave time from candidate repartee, Princess Diana memorials, celebrity rehab and competitive adoption stories. It’s not enough that rich people amass cars, homes, wardrobe, ex-spouses. Now they compete for family-size. And since hired surrogates are changing most of the diapers, why bother wasting 9 months of possible discomfort when you get the same glossy spread with your ready-made little adoptee? And if you pick a non-matched set, you get of course extra points for compassion and political correctness.

Back to Africa. Darfur, Sierra Leone….even Hollywood got involved last year. And I begin to realize not only how little I know but how much I’ve forgotten since high-school World History. So I bought this book—kind of a text book thing, which begins at the beginning, in the era of Pangea—and I am reminded that nearly all life forms originated in Africa. Its fossil and mineral-rich underbeds hold the key to understanding not only the process of evolution, but the dynamics of human survival-economics.

Survival is something we Americans rarely consider, except as simulated entertainment, or in conjunction with illness. But when you really go back and look at the MO of our ancestors, there seems to be little biological hope that goodness and generosity and higher values will ever prevail.

There is, of course, a general rule among natural species, that when need is greatest, selfish behaviour predominates. If this were not the case, a compassionate species might have survived more than 2 generations. Sated animals do show affection for their own kind—the instinct for ‘play’ and interaction even motivates their behaviour. But when hunger or thirst is unattended, all bets are off.

So what is it that makes my Manhattan neighbors so hungry and thirsty that they share their excesses only to the degree that there is some kind of applause? Is the gene for generosity permanently recessive? Are the Astors and Rockefellers and Roses giving only the unwieldy excess? And how about you and I? My neighbors who are somewhat newly comfortable seem to be amassing ‘kill’ beyond what they can possibly process. Is this an inborn animal instinct that has become ‘refined’ into need for possessions and equipment so far beyond biological basis? Is it a symptom of emotional or spiritual deprivation? Depravity?

My son came back from a weekend in the Hamptons. He stayed in a home where there was an indoor glass-walled garage for the family Lamborghinis and Ferraris. One of them, the son told him, cost their Dad more than 3 million. A car no one drives. Anyway, when my son got back to the city, his foot began to itch and swell. It was huge. Maybe you’re turning into a pumpkin, I joked. But not for long, because I’d been reading my book on Africa and began worrying about exotic insects. So we went to the doctor who prescribed expensive antibiotics and antihistamines for his swollen foot. Personally I think he was bitten by the enormo-bug, the one that keeps these people in the market for bigger and bigger houses, more and more undrivable cars, bigger hypodermics of botox and skincreams. Swollen heads, swollen wallets, swollen needs only the capacity of a world-web can entertain.

Historical evolution teaches us the bigger they come the harder they fall. Although thus far in my adult lifetime these principles do not seem to apply. We have messed up the environment, introduced all kinds of synthetic chemicals, distorted the global climatic patterns…so what is in store? The survival of the richest? That seems to be the new deal. Even the coming mortgage crisis won’t level any field we have here.

I read somewhere a beheaded cockroach can live for 8 days and then will die of hunger. Beheaded humans die instantly. Then again, cockroaches have been here a lot longer and will likely continue to outlast us no matter how rich the exterminators get. So who wins?
I bet on the bugs. I may be bugged by the Lamborghini family, but their kids are allergic to bee-stings. By the way, my son asked me if he can sue them for the damage to his ankle. Maybe I should bet on him.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Cash in the Attic

When I was small I believed in ghosts. I had seen ghosts. My old house was filled with them. In the attic they slept—white sheety things covering old secrets. At night when we were supposed to be sleeping they drifted around, creaking and whooshing. They weren’t necessarily scary, they just reminded that things you did-- things you had abandoned, didn’t necessarily just go away, they just lay waiting in your attic.

American mortgage lenders have been caught more or less with their pants down. A crisis which has been brewed by greed and a super-sized real estate market. A segment of our economy grotesquely ballooned into a distorted image of Uncle Sam now threatens to collapse its ugly self onto our bad dream. Wall Street this week behaved as though this were not the case, although the more ghost-fearing among us were certainly listening. I was actually wondering if I shouldn’t buy stock in mattress-manufacturers. These could become the only reliable banks.

And who should accept the blame for this? The aggressive mortgage lenders, promising us our dream castle for a fairy-tale down payment and a manageable monthly payment? The banks, bestowing money like no tomorrow? The credit card companies who happily issue more and more cards for us to order furnishings and Jacuzzis and pools to go with our mansions and new clothing to wear when we entertain our neighbors? The government-- the ones who spend and decide and speak in theoretical sums with abbreviated zeros? The same government that demonstrates how the number on our bank statements has nothing to do with spending, that available capital has no ceiling?

I’d like to know why the newly inflated price of a gallon of milk has put a wrinkle in my household budget, why I am living with a leaky ceiling and no dishwasher, stretching my meager honest income further and further every week, cutting a luxury here and there, with a bit of emergency cash in the bank and no debt. Because I read Aesop’s fables with unusual attention in grade school? Because I barely passed physics in high school and remember for every action there is a corresponding reaction? Because I believe in ghosts?

Here’s one thing I believe. I don’t lack sympathy for poor people, although I have a certain skepticism when it comes to the rich. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to be the one that bails out these people who decided they wanted to live in a house with a spiral staircase and a skylight and a tennis court. And their real-estate agents who took that infommercial course and made $100,000 a month sitting on their sofa, flipping real-estate to poor schmucks who wanted to impress their family, their neighbors, themselves. These people lived like fatcats for several years while I didn’t. These people charged up Prada and True Religion and Hermes to go with their fancy houses and new lifestyles and simply declared bankruptcy. So now what? They are going to be forgiven? Ghosts everywhere are stirring.

If you are up at 4 AM every night like I am, you will eventually come across this charming British show called Cash in the Attic. Where people decide they want something beyond their means—not things like the Queen’s diamond brooch, but like a trip to Australia to visit their dying brother….new cabinets for their kitchen—a modernized bathroom. An antique expert comes to their house and looks through all their possessions and heirlooms and the flea-market stuff they’ve collected and comes up with enough merchandise to bring to a local auction house where inevitably and tediously they come up with the necessary cash. Pound by pound. It’s charming…and it usually has a happy ending. In fact, I have a secret crush on the host. He has the most adorable dimples and genuine laugh…okay, he might be gay, but I love the guy-- the way he enjoys these people, the way he becomes intimate and yet doesn’t invade.

Let’s bring him to America and let him find some cash in these people’s attics—the ones with the collapsing sub-prime mortgages who will have to auction not just their attic but their house and their children and still won’t come up with the money. But hey, it may make for some entertaining reality television and it might, as opposed to My Super Sweet Sixteen and all the rest of the toxic media messages here, give America a lesson in self-reliance and consequences and personal economics we seem to have forgotten.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Bridge

The Bridge.

24/7 coverage of this event. Minnesota. The heartland. Like a ruptured artery in the complex cardiac structure of America. Like any arterial rupture: this brings death. We are fascinated, we are sad, we are horrified. We are glued to our TVs and the networks are competing for our attention. What new horror can they air that will cause us to tune in? Extra footage on Youtube, the internet. The horror, the statistics. What is it with the American fascination with carnage, with tragedy, with the spectacle. Network analysts know well, aside from celebrities falling from grace, nothing boosts their audience like a disaster. On the internet, little competed with the numbers who watched the hanging of Saddam…over and over. Move over, Barry Bonds—our 9/11—6 years later, still holds the record. A little bit of the sadistic in us, a little bit of—let’s see that again and then we can thank God our pathetic lives aren’t that painful, our debts and sorrows aren’t that catastrophic. We are lucky bastards, sitting here with the summertime blues, dreaming of a vacation we can’t afford.

While my kids watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre XXX and Hostel II without a quickened pulse, I find myself cringing even at primetime violence—hospital shows. Fictional disaster, fake blood capsules. I gasp when a basketball player falls--- what is wrong with me? In a world of novocained viewers, I can’t seem to desensitize. In fact, I might be getting worse. Emotional hypochondria? Acute motherhood? Like every victim is potentially my child? I don’t know. Loser—my kids call me. I’m a loser. I pick up garbage, I help people across the street. I feel guilty when I don’t put money in a cup even though half the panhandlers hand me back my change, these days. They have pride. If you can’t put in a bill, keep your goddam bleeding-heart-liberal cheap hand in your pocket.

But The Bridge. I couldn’t sleep. Ever since I was a kid I dream about bridges—in the dark—graceful long suspension bridges. I am somehow at the top with the wind in my hair, and the bridge is moving, swinging as it is meant to..and there is the hardening fist of panic in my gut—hang on…jump…whatever…

Sure, I’ve read Jung and Freud, but I still have the dream… no matter how many times in and out of sleep I reassure myself—I am alive, this is a dream. The dream is a SYMBOL. I am safe but sensing the precarious balance of life, suspending myself between realities, experiencing the ‘void’, the choice—life vs. death, space vs. matter, darkness vs. light…my own limits. Bla bla.

For me it is the feeling that is important. I wonder if other people dream this stuff, if there is anyone else that can’t sleep after watching the Discovery Health network, who reaches into nearly-empty pockets every time that St. Jude’s Hospital appeal comes on.

But I read on the internet—the QVC network is taking in record sums from overweight Americans in the heartland who are ordering shoes and jewelry and theme-quilts in mind-boggling numbers. Collecting exercise systems—DVDs now so they can replace their unopened VHS cassettes. Tae Bo and Hip Hop Abs, Colonics and detox systems—hair restorers and acne medication— magical makeup-- while they eat bag after bag of transfat-free snacks and exercise their fingers on the remote and their iphones. They don’t have to get up to order more; they don’t have to move or even lick a stamp. QVC doesn’t show the bridge tragedy.

Today there is the mine in Utah. Worse. A place I've never been. The claustrophobia…the airless world underground… the dark. A catastrophe so intense the technology perceived it as an earthquake. The grave beneath the graves. My bridge is swinging.

My children are spending half a night’s pay at the movies where they will watch extreme fighting, human carnage, torture and sex in a comfortably airconditioned theatre. They can’t take the heat. I am working on a dark slide-guitar version of the old Beegees Mining Disaster song which will sound more like When the Levee Breaks. I am worrying about the miners, replaying the terror of people in sinking cars filling with river-water who were unable to think clearly about seatbelts and windshields…people who might have been waiting for their QVC DVD on safety and disaster protocol and will no longer be there to receive it. People who will have bad feedback on Ebay because they never paid for the Nikes they just purchased from their car iphone, seconds before the bridge collapsed.

I will play this song and not say anything, because I hate bleeding-heart liberals like myself. Pathetic losers, we are. I will dream about bridge disasters and mine collapses in the thick pre-dawn of this August heatwave, listen for the rain that will come and destroy our subway system this morning, thank God I only suffer from a toothache because I can’t afford a root canal. I will get up, sweaty and still sensitized, and write a song.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Number 23

New York City summer. Hot enough for you? This is the topic of choice. Everyone in the city complains, whines. Always something. The Second Avenue subway, taxes. Wall Street is shaky. I vacillate between wanting the glassy towers of hedge-fund driven wealth to topple and knowing it’s us poor bastards that pay for it all in the end.

On my way downtown last night, one of these welfare mothers napping on the train. 5 kids all under the age of 6…two strollers, 3 huddled on the metal bench in cheap polyester basketball jerseys and shorts, chilling in the subway AC. Boys, all of them. Mother not more than 21—like a girl, pulling a hoodie over her chest. Maybe another life starting under the thickness of her over-stretched T-shirt. The middle-child of the huddle—the boy, maybe 4, his thumb in his mouth, stroking his other hand up and down on the back of his brother who serves as his pillow. The little miniature Michael Jordan, wanting a little affection—the sensitive one, needing the touch.

I caught some footage the other day of that orphaned hippo who’d chosen a 130 year-old tortoise for his mother…The whole world is moved by this…that giant amphibious toddler caressing an old shell with a shapeless heavy head, licking the rough hideous turtle-face with that massive baby-tongue in the dry Kenyan turf. Another one—needing the touch.

On the late-afternoon Upper East Side streets, an endless parade of nannies between air-conditioned spaces-- picking up toddlers from playgroup. Corporate types who never missed a well-dressed beat for pregnancy and the mess of childbirth-- coming home to their Chinese-born youngsters in designer toddler-wear—so far from home. What will happen to these privileged children with the perfect haircuts and SAT scores? We’ve not yet seen the adopted American-Asian population in rehab, collecting DUIs and ex-boyfriends and prescriptions. So far they wear their Spence and Chapin uniforms well, do not struggle with their weight. They excel at drawing, play their ½-sized violins with finesse. Their parents wear this well.

At work I keep thinking of the boy in the huddle—the one with the soft heart—the one that maybe cries more, gives his young mother a harder time, the one with the enormous thirst who pulled a short damaged straw. His little shaved head…his shiny brown-black little arm soft and smooth and needy in the little knot of brown limbs and red polyester. Maybe after a few years of unfulfilled hunger he’ll start to act out, look for the wrong kind of attention. Maybe he’ll be a rapper, be adored by millions; maybe he’ll put his passion into ball-playing. Maybe he’ll confuse his needs and become obese. Or maybe he’ll be a sex-addict. Maybe he’ll have to sell himself for the touch, fill his hole with a needle-ful.

Oh God, I am thinking—give this little boy a guitar-- something. All these people on the stage with me here.. using volume as their art…the Lost Boys of rock and roll. Up here—with the audience, the women, the affection… doing Summertime Blues for the Budweiser-saturated.. .. You Can’t Always Get What You Want ..and they forgot what it was they wanted in the first place. All dressed up, all wired…and nothing to say.

So as I ignore all the hustlers on the way home—all the hard-luck stories…the exhausted sweaty subway-guitarist who’s played ‘Landslide’ more times than Stevie Nicks… I keep my little Michael in my pocket. My prayer of the day—please God, or Oprah...let someone feed this child, let him weep…give him an ear, an extra pat on the head, a copy of Harold and The Purple Crayon.

Jesus. I think the heat’s getting to me.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Midsummer Night's Dream

Did you ever listen to Swedish rap music? It’s a kind of paradox. A little like Swedish blues. How much is there to moan about in this beautiful country where health care is universal and excellent elder care is a priority; where a year of first-class childcare costs less than a monthly metrocard? It’s a good thing I can’t understand the lyrics because they’d probably be parroting the negativity and anger of American hip-hop, the way Europeans all used to wear our styles, play our music, and consume our toxic TV sitcoms like M&Ms. Maybe. Maybe not.

Because this summer, in Sweden, I noticed a small difference. American music isn’t quite all over the charts the way it used to be. On the national news, violence in Iraq is on the roster, but mostly, besides the emigration of Beckham, there is little mention of the US. In financial news one hears relentlessly how the dollar, day by day, is hitting new lows. Besides always-buoyant sales of Springsteen and Dylan tickets, and the omnipresent CBGBs and Ramones T-shirts, I now observe more of Stockholm in New York than America in Stockholm.

And more than anything, you notice Swedish quality of service. In the metro, in cafes, at petrol stations--- there are young, stylish people doing these low-level jobs with dignity. They are kind, open-faced—happy to help. They do not expect and often will not accept gratuities. Generally there is not this intense competitive drive to make a hedge-fund fortune because success and happiness in these countries has more to do with deep-seated values than a brand-new mansion in the Hamptons. It is still cool to play music and be good. And except for the very insecure nouveau-trendy in Stockholm, dress is casually stylish but not excessive. Besides young Goths, one rarely sees any of the conspicuous make-up which New York women seem to require these days.

I spent a whole evening talking to a quasi-famous aging punk rocker. He does construction during the day-- supports a family, plays music at night. He likes it that way. He talks about socialized medicine, criticizes the American system, understands little its obsession with money. Like many Swedes, he is so great-looking that it hurts…he is completely unaffected, scarcely notices the gorgeous women that lean on his stage…is glad for the 8 month paid paternity-leave he was granted for each of his 3 kids. Was happy to reminisce about the New York scene with me, walked me cordially back to my hotel-room like a gentleman.

My last night I met a tall, long-haired beautiful man with a weathered leather jacket and the air of a woodsman. For his living, this guy paints murals. Not just any murals—he decorates the walls of an old Swedish iron-mine north of the Arctic Circle—miles of them-- 1500 meters below ground, so the miners—in the long, dark, frigid winters, will have beauty and light around them while they work. For this he is paid a stipend by the government. A character out of an unwritten Michael Ondaatje novel. He knew about music, too..about poetry, about art. The Guinness book of records lists the world’s deepest painting as some cave, maybe 1100 meters down. So why not correct them, one of my bandmembers asks? He laughs, nods his head and says in Swedish something like ‘You crazy Americans.’ Tonight I am looking at his work online. He is painting his dream, half a mile beneath the midnight summer sun. Miles to go.

Floors below me, in the tunnels of New York, I pray someone is still risking arrest to spray his version of a dream on some wall. That the dreamers will paint faster and further than the MTA workers hired to remove their work. That all the young, shivering or sweating artists who came here with any dream will not wilt and die in the face of the greed and excess and false gentrification which has become my great city. That lack of acknowledgment will not cause them to pack their few belongings and move on to a place like Sweden. It is tempting.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Ipods and Benefit Cards

There’s this guy in my neighborhood with those arm crutches. He reeks of garlic and listens to NPR on some portable radio headphones. The few times I’ve overheard him he’s speaking about politics—maybe a Dennis Kucinich supporter. He has no observable handicap I can see—in fact he seems rather robust-- works out, no hint of a limp, often carries the crutches on one arm, gives me the eye and I give it back—that two dogs passing thing—the quick growl, slight rise of the lip-- just letting the other know…don’t even think about it. A bitter radical. Just over the hill…waiting for Medicare…maybe even pulling a disability scam on the MTA with those crutches, for the satisfaction of the half-price thing, sticking it to the system…yeah, that’s it, you cheap bastard.

Why does this guy bug me? Lately Writerless is acquiring this edge. A crust. Getting old-- crisping. Rarely accepting anything at face value. Maybe a good pint of American redblood replaced by something nasty.

I had to go to the ER last weekend…test the system which at its most shining is nothing less than rotten. I actually broke my foot, although the triage and admission staff relegated me to whiney white-bitch status immediately. I could tell. So I sat-- a little miserable. Huge families on welfare with the benefit cards—babies in strollers, aunts, uncles—like a party—all laughing, trading ipods, abusing the vending machines, filing in and out while I sat. No one even offered an ice-pack. I saw the diagnosis on the computer-screen: Sprained ankle. You go girl. You could sit all weekend with that one.

My hospital co-pay will be $50 if I’m lucky, and if I watch every move, I won’t owe more than a couple of hundred all told. For this --and the privilege of being last, I actually pay out-of-pocket $700 a month. Just for myself. Kids—with my musician’s income, get some state program-- great care, no money.

But for these families— those of the 400 pound aunt who forgot her albuterol, the fat girl who stubbed her toe, the baby with a slight fever--not a cent of co-pay. They each racked up maybe $3,000 for the State of New York while the unsick of them partied, consumed snacks and beverages, talked on their cellphones, told jokes and enjoyed a rent-free air-conditioned living-room for the night. There's even a decent film on the HD monitors. Kids running everywhere, screaming, jumping around, watching cartoons and playing completely unsupervised in the Pediatric ER waiting room. Heck, if one of them has an accident, they’re home-free here. And the women behind the glass-- the ones moving at 2 RPMs-- they ignored it all.

After 9 hours I somehow bypassed the front desk and went in. They claimed they’d called me hours ago….anyway, looked surprised when they saw the clean fracture on the film…and sent me home with another referral. Seems my insurance, unlike the free variety, doesn’t cover actual treatment in the ER. I’ll have to beg and plead and get additional electronic referrals to another free clinic which is the only place in this day that accepts my health insurance for which I pay maybe 1/3 of my annual income. 1/3. And I am just one slim asset away from the free kind. But I struggle and skimp and save and wear old clothes for this privilege. My kids hate me, I can barely afford basic cable, have no ipod or cell, and of course my $50 co-pay does not include use of the hospital phones to call someone to help me home because in my state of acute pain, I didn’t think to bring quarters. Vending machines are not an option for the likes of me. While the woman behind the glass is dispensing get-out-of-work-free notes to the families, because they were in the ER.

So on this eve of American Independence Day, I am looking for the meaning of a true American holiday. My teenager will be jet-skiing with his friends, dressed like a rich person and sipping lemonade on the South Hampton veranda of a brand-new mansion with a French name. Macy’s will be spending mega-millions on a fireworks display which could have fed the entire African continent. New York City will be spending more than the GNP of an average state on overtime for the beefed-up police force. I’ll be hobbling onto a stairless stage, docked $20 for making someone else set up my amplifier, going home on the train with my $100, thinking about freedom and independence. Thinking about these fat American families barbecuing steak they purchased with benefit cards, listening to their ipods and cellphones and enjoying the other fruits of their credit card debt, free American health insurance and instant disability payments because maybe they were too lazy to refill their free albuterol prescription.

Incidentally, the therapeutic boot-thing my foot requires is not covered and costs more than Prada, so I’ll rig up some old stiff-sole arrangement and hobble painfully on.

God Bless America. And Michael Moore.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Sleepless in Manhattan

It's 3 Am. My son starts his summer job tomorrow and went to bed several hours ago, intending to be rested and calm on his first day. I pass the door and give that little automatic maternal listen...and I can hear him, through gritted teeth on his phone, sparring with that hellcat he doth protest to refuse to refer to as a girlfriend.

At 17 he swaggers around with this casual macho attitude he has constructed out of hip-hop, basketball, gangsta and a little bit of preppy/jock Polo mannequin thrown in. He has told me, on many occasions, that the way to control women is to treat them like shit, and they eat out of your hand. Or wherever it is they feed on these days, these quasi-anorexic over-styled girls with the $2,000 accessories, the perfect streaked hair, the make-up, the shoes, earbuds, sunglasses, cigarettes, vodka-tonics.They have taken old fashioned women's liberation to new levels and not only brag about their slutty behaviour but shamelessly use these teenage boys as platforms.

Even though he rarely communicates anything close to reality, in his tormented mental and hormonal limbo he occasionally forgets to close the chat-screen and I can see this little minx dropping remarks about who she's hooked up with and when. Her verbal tags are like a sharply manicured finger beckoning and my poor son is like a puppy with a remote chip in his brain from her cellphone. Every time she turns it on or texts, he turns over in his bed. His use of the air-conditioner is causing my electric bill to spike and I'd like to send it to the unknowing parents of this vampiress who think she is just an adorable girl. She turns off her light at night and gets A's while my poor demented boy is hanging on for life. His notebooks are filled with notes for emails written her, lists of clothing items to prick her fancy, plans. Things he will do that will impress her, cause her to fall into his exclusive arms forever. And why? So he can dump her. Because the other side of his tortured coin is that once this girl stops this act, he'll be bored. The sad, sad truth of it. Oh, we adults will protest and talk about relationships and mutual respect and values and our soulmates. But there is a reason the frigging Village Voice back pages--the ones which used to be endless club listings-- are now the printed legal red light district. Because we are all in mourning, somewhere, for the one that got away, for our lost obsessive quest for whatever it was that eluded us. The longing thing. We can look now-- we can look all over the place. Girls used to be arrested for wearing what is now standard fare. We can say penis and vagina on TV, we can look at soft and hard porn on our TVs, computers...whatever... but is the thrill gone? This stuff does it for some, but for most of us it was knowing how bad the guy was for us, the one that kept us from concentrating, from sleeping, from eating. From growing up.

Lap it up, I want to say to him. There will come a day when you will wonder where the passion went-- where some gorgeous thing will enter the room and you no longer have to console yourself with the thought that 'someone, somewhere is sick of his or her shit', because you are sick of the whole thing, and you go back to your mate or your cool empty bed and you think about the bills and whether or not you put the chain on the door. Or whether you should have given that guy in the bar your actual phone number. Just think, you could be lying in bed thinking about him. Longing.

There's always tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Landslide

Last night I was leaving work and there was this singer/songwriter I remembered from the R train, years ago, doing a hack-job of Led Zeppelin covers. Now his ponytail is gray and greasy, and he’s got that hard-set thing in his face no botox ever would get out, not that he’s buying. And he gives me that look, the look the subway guys give working musicians, that says Fuck you, you sold out and I’m still free, here, with my dream and my music.

They tell me, these musicians, they make a great living there, underground..breathing metal-flecked putrid air, sucking it up, sweating it out in the summer sludge, with the little puffs of cool every time the car doors open. Not as tough as it was back in the pre-air-conditioned day, when it took a good month of frost before the impacted summer air became breathable. When playing the subways was like boot-camp and only the strong survived.

So the guy asks me how my gig was, whether I’m still playing with the same guitarist, and I try to be cool and distant and respectful and feel no bitterness in my pocket with the c-bill and then he breaks into Landslide, a tearjerker for sure, but not many shillers on this platform…a tough crowd, the 3 AM Times Square uptown 2 riders wrung dry from their shift. And I hear myself silently humming the harmony, all sweet and nice, even though I hate that Stevie Nicks and her hippy dresses.

And one of the waitresses from my gig comes up behind me—a new one, from Brixton, my old haunt in London—just as some hunched-over beggar-woman is coming up with that tilted-head thing, and the hand held out—she grabs me, says these people make fuck-all more than I do in a shift—and brings me back to reality.

The other night on PBS they showed that Central Park rally from 1982—the anti-nuke thing with all the hippies and people who had marched from everywhere to converge at this massive Woodstocky event with a political agenda, and I have to say it turned my stomach. I mean, I am all for world peace, and I might have even been there in my home-grown cotton slip, smoking dope with my schoolmates-- but what I can’t stand is people who walk up hills and then have to talk about it. People that walk 800 miles and want you to give them money. We all walk 800 miles maybe every fucking week, and we’re not barking in your face to give me some money because of course we don’t want to get blown up or because our friend has some disease and we want you to believe we’re a fucking martyr for walking of our own free will and not actually doing our frigging job. I wonder if these walkers use some of the raised money to buy themselves a Gatorade, or to stop at Whole Foods for an overpriced tofu salad. Fuck them all.

When I got home I was looking at this book of jazz photos and there’s this great shot of some famous horn player—a white guy this time… walking up this hill in LA that makes you swear it’s San Francisco. And the caption says the photographer knew he needed a fix, but he did the shoot anyway, walking up that hill, with his jacket over his arm, his shirtsleeves rolled up, ready…and if you look close it’s not the sun squint in his eyes it’s the whole sick cycle of fifths, with every other major 7th the needle.You can feel his song, the horn line underneath his breath, in black and white a song that says something like woke up this morning in someone else’s life….A real musician, like they don’t make them anymore. Walking up the goddam hill for the photographer.

Amen.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Let Her Eat Cake

So… how long ago was it that we had the cartoon of Paris Hilton in her little sexy devil costume entering Hell, with Satan himself licking his chops like the Red Riding Hood wolf, the flames all around, and the caption, of course: ‘It’s hot!’

Well, I guess prison, or the version poor Paris experienced, was not air-conditioned. Paris got a heat-rash…or maybe it was a yeast infection, or prickly heat or jock-itch or something unattractive. And she was afraid to pee, or worse. Like the entire world audience hasn't seen everything and more. A potty shot, compared to that video, would be fairly demure. Can you imagine what the press is offering those prison guards for such contraband? Better than a winning lotto ticket and certainly worth losing one's job over. Heck, even if you'd have to do time-- I'm sure prison-guards get special inmate-status. It would be like getting a huge gratuity from Paris. A pay-back. Because there's no actual tipping in jail. But can you imagine the paycheck for that one little Kodak second? And then the book deal...

Did you ever notice how pathetic your child looked in time-out posture, with that sad, tilted face, all baby-cute and sorry…and the second you give the signal, he is back again pulling dog tails, smashing his little sister over the head and whacking balls around the living room? I wonder occasionally how many times the Hiltons actually punished their children. They are so apparently lenient and doting through all the unattractive public displays from which their lovely daughter has not only emerged unscathed, but profited. She and Britney Spears have written the new book on shame because any behavioral deviation is now processed not as embarrassing or incriminating, but with a shrug and a new interpretation of the word pride. Complete lack of shame is a punk-rock thing. Edgy and bold. Not too long ago Fergie, who peed in her pants onstage, shrugged her shoulders, and actually was admired for what might have sent an older-generation celebrity to a sanatorium. The new breed of publicists taught these girls: don’t be embarrassed, flaunt your errors. Own them and smile. The rest of the world will be wanting one, too. Your popped boob will be looked at millions of times worldwide on Youtube, your celebrity stock value will skyrocket. Shame is in the eye of the beholder.

Has there been any other frontpage news since poor little Paris went to grown-up jail? And I thought she had all that practice slumming it with her friend Nicole in those reality shows where they actually had to cook and shovel things and vacuum. I guess when you’re earning millions it’s fun to take out the garbage on camera. So was it the lack of entertainment in prison? The lack of audience? What caused our girl to break down during her little time out? I’m sure no one touched her. I’m sure she didn’t have to use the community showers or feel threatened. In fact I’m sure her little cell is nicer than your average low-income motel-room. Better than some college dorms. But whatever—it provoked a full-blown anxiety attack or tantrum which required some unspecified psychotropic drugs to subdue.

And our Paris was so contrite—had learned sooo much from her 2 or 3 days in the cheery quarters which are cleaner and larger than the average New York City apartment. Until they decided to send her back for just a little bit more time. Obviously 'No' is a word not often heard in the Hilton household. What does one do for a celebrity tantrum? We all feel so sorry for her. NOT. How in Hilton Hell did that LA sheriff make such an insane decision? It took a Bob Dylan epic song and years of pleas and political demonstrations to get Hurricane justice. But the Hilton brat? Well, it seems her grandfather partly funded this particular sheriff’s re-election campaign and called in the favor. Rich people are smart. Why, in this day and age, Marie Antoinette would have an ankle bracelet and plenty of cake.

And did anyone else notice the tiny item in the Post on Friday relating how the younger Hilton had been mugged near Penn Station. I’m sure he was innocent, too… maybe copping some drugs, flashing his wallet around, whatever. Maybe he was jealous of the attention his sister was getting. Maybe he wanted to join her, keep her company---a Hiltonian sacrifice for his family.

So now what? Jail didn’t hurt Martha Stewart any, but she didn’t have a public melt-down, either. She wore her poncho for the photographers and went home. Personally I can’t afford any more summer holiday than a daytrip to the Rockaways on the A train. That jail cell looks to me like an all-expenses paid holiday from my whining teenagers. No such luck for the mildly and uncelebrated wicked. I won’t get a book deal or a prison sentence and if I did it wouldn’t be worth a mention in the papers. Crime doesn’t pay, for poor people. Not like for Paris and Martha and their fortunate jurors and guards.


My kids have their Free Paris wristbands which someone has already made a small fortune out of. They wish their parents had named them after a European hotel, also. Then they wouldn’t need a stage-name in the future. The Hiltons had it all figured, I guess. All under control. And if little Paris has to spend two weeks without alcohol and drugs in her little cell, at least now she’ll be prescription medicated and it won’t be so bad. Like nitrous oxide for the rich at the dentist’s office. And she’ll lose a few pounds, be able to swap clothes with the anorexic Nicole, write the 23-day Celebrity Prison Diet book. I spent worse summers at Girl Scout camp. With poison ivy.

Here’s a little game: Remove the word ‘prison’ from Paris Hilton…what’s left? All you anagram fans can go to town on that one. Maybe she’ll get to play solitaire scrabble in her cell and figure it out. I wonder what she is reading: Dostoevsky? Kafka? Arthur Koestler? Tough to concentrate when you have cell-phone withdrawal. My son just lost his and he is having a Hiltonian tantrum. Maybe he can borrow one of Paris’ while she’s not using it. Just think of all the rollover minutes she’s socking away.

And a little sisterly caution to Paris: Don't forget to flush.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Gymblog

The way you can tell you’re getting pathetic and old is if you actually begin talking to people at your gym. I mean, young people occasionally meet each other this way, although since literally everyone under 50 has earbuds in, 24/7, this is currently more difficult. But there are these middle-aged women whose kids are now old enough to have their own life, and they meet there-- some earnestly trying to hold onto their youth with the botox and facelifts, but mostly the average middle-class ones in Manhattan have given up and are half-heartedly cycling their legs and exercising primarily their tongue.

I am losing interest in the ever-decreasing efficacy of exercise as a motivator, and I detest even the word earbuds, so I have reluctantly begun to engage in conversation. Some of these women past prime-time at night are actually politicians and writers and are interesting. Others want to talk about vitamins and teenagers and apartment renovations. I have noticed lately that I rarely sweat in the gym. TV is boring me, especially since they have deleted Bravo from the menu. I don’t quite need reading glasses and placing books on the machine is far enough away to blur the print. So, besides the chatter, I look around and practice being an old person. Occasionally I seethe.

Seriously, there should be a manual on gym etiquette. We are paying for this time which is a premium in Manhattan. Driving is free, but there are traffic laws, penalties for violations. Not so at the gym; no consequences.

Besides the smelly old men who lust after young girls, and I don’t mean young women, I mean girls my kids’ age who wear their two-piece with the low-slung shorts which conceal little. To their credit, they sweat, these girls. Ditto the old lusty men. Who smell bad. I mean, as you get older your senses are supposed to dull; my eyes are bugging me, but my nose, unlike these people, is still fairly accurate. If you are going to pant and wheeze contiguously to other humans, have the courtesy a. to refrain from binging on garlic until after the workout b. to use deodorant or wash regularly and c. to wear clean gym clothes because the smell of sweaty old-man enhanced by stale locker-fermented T-shirt and shorts is more than I can bear. And everyone has their own personal scent: more information than one wants. And at the opposite end of the spectrum, some women over-perfume, and the occasional freshly-manicured girl with the toxic polish smell can make you dizzy enough to fall off the machine.

Okay…let’s move on to the audio-offenses. Because they have their ipods turned to the max or are listening to TV, some people are not aware that they are literally screaming to their neighbor….or talking on their cellphone to their maid about what to cook for dinner and which kids have which homework due. I’d like to punch them. There is one guy at my gym who has the nerve to tell giggling kids to keep quiet, but when there is a cute girl 3 machines away, he’ll engage in a shouting exchange to chat her up. And of course the ones that abuse their machine time-privileges mercilessly are the most vocal when they are waiting for your 30 seconds on the Ab-machine to be up so they can press on for another 6 interminable smelly minutes. Then there are the elephants—the usually young men who press the treadmill to the limit and are maybe having a military marching fantasy because every stride is an explosion. They can keep this up for 60 minutes, at a pace of 8-9 mph. Can’t they actually run in the park, on a road? Do they require a captive audience?

Okay—the visual. I realize I am a gym eyesore but this insures that they will never-ever photograph me for their brochures which they are constantly revamping. I wear my sons’ old clothes and hide beneath huge stained old T-shirts and old-fashioned headphones. But strutting around are middle-aged men who obviously don’t have mirrors, because they are wearing Lance Armstrong’s bicycle pants with no butt and their old-man package somehow stashed in. And the bare legs with the veins and the wrinkled skin. Again, more information. Older women who let their arm flab hang and some even baring extremely unappetizing midriffs. This helps the rest of us curb our calorie intake because it is positively nauseating.

Touch. Okay, there are never enough cleaners in these places which are like a bacterial paradise. But the sweatiest guys seem to think towels are accessories for their neck… or they have a maid at home constantly following them around with windex and a cloth (not!) and they sit on these cybex machines, leave their imprint in perspiration and don’t even look back. There ought to be a major fine for this. It is disgusting.

So here I am covered neck-to-toe with clothing that conceals everything but my face like a Muslim woman, my eyes and ears and nose regretfully open and I find myself occasionally using my mouth to engage with others, which distracts me from seething and being annoyed by the etiquette violations. I forget that fully half of these people find my demeanor and habits, opinions and outsider fashion downright intolerable. At this point in life I, too, avoid mirrors. And God forbid they should notice my choice of music or literature. So I gratefully pay my fees and try my best to shut the hell up.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Intervention, anyone?

My friend called me this morning—the one with the Biotech stock. Well, now that the stock seems to be at the end of its ride, the greedy investors who bought in at the crest are initiating a lawsuit, because that is the American way. Pass the buck, blame someone else. If these same righteous stockbusters had made their 80 percent and cashed out, they’d be sitting in the Hamptons with their sweating martini glasses, giving a little tilted head to the less fortunate.

But the new American way is…put your money down; if you’re unlucky and the wheel passes you by, there’s always the post-mortem lawsuit. It is the adult wealth-version of a tantrum. When things don’t go your manipulative way, kick and scream and stamp your feet, but don’t let anyone see this—you are too sophisticated. Hire a corporate lawyer. He will get rich and will even maybe give you a small kickback or open an account at your firm and you will get an annual 2% of their fat earnings. 2% of the monopoly money, that is, because remember this company has no profit, no viable product. Nevermind; its maybe 80 million shares have changed hands so many times now their trading statistics begin to rival the NYC rat-to-human ratio.

So what fuels this frenzy? Not the good-old American quest for profit, the healthy motor that drove our economy for years. It’s the massive Epidemic of Greed. The whole American culture is now a culture of addiction; we’ve admitted this. Overeating, overspending, overcollecting. The new American obese…and now you can get your stomach stapled off and develop another addiction. The addiction is secondary; the disease is primary. And it progresses from Greed to full-blown Addiction to Greed. These Wall Street guys are no longer content to reap reasonable growth statistics. Profits must be not even double-digit, but triple digit. Yes…why not? 200 percent return. Don’t just invest; pour your money into this machine and like alchemy it multiplies. Ahh, yes…double-percentage growth in a single day; this is what they like to see. Like crack addicts… heading ever-upward into the infinite realm of ‘more’. Supersize me, they say. Supersize my portfolio or I’ll sue.

I checked out the Richard Serras last night. Okay, he is a mainstream contemporary artist. I quite liked his work in the 60’s; those leather belts are awesome, the plinths, the thrown lead pieces— the lead and neon contrast, delicate steel planes leaning precariously like a house of cards. This took courage, a concept. It was real art. An acknowledged nod to Michael Heizer who really tipped the scales by using earth as his medium—the scale, the concept…awesome. And walking through the Serra curved walls was cool—the rough oxidized surfaces, like an industrial post-minimal 21st century scrap-metal version of a garden maze. Even though they were begging for a New York 21st century dose of graffiti to make them real. In fact, I put my money on someone daring to do that, although the crowds will be massive and the opportunity for a little unobserved subversive spraying will be rare. Because this show has been marketed-to-the-max as an event. Everyone who is anyone, and especially everyone who is no one will be there. The media has insured that. Even though just 3 short fiscal years ago you couldn’t give away a Richard Serra. Lot after lot passed at auction. Even though half the benefactors last night couldn’t tell the art from the bar.

But I couldn’t help thinking, as I navigated the rusty metal paths, feeling human and dwarfed… that somewhere among these corporate sponsors was one who is wrapping his head around the idea of taking this home. Like having a real tiger in your backyard, a trophy wife who won’t behave, the hugest of the football-field-sized houses in the Hamptons. Measuring. Supersizing. Owning.

Going up the escalator I am badly dressed and invisible. I looked down on these poor wealthy people, pitying that they will be forced to pay not 8 but maybe 9 figures of Monopoly money for these hunks of pitted steel which were maybe forged from scrap…while David Rockefeller only paid 5 figures for true timeless masterpieces, and had the wisdom to sell some off now, to take advantage of the supersized greed while he helps the poor and sick or the future generation of artists. Maybe.

Hanging in one of the stairwells was a great Baselitz…a man who understands painting. A great one… monumental but not massive. Like most of his work, pricey but in this context underappreciated..and with his edgy and smart sense of the art-viewing audience, upside-down.