Thursday, April 26, 2007

Safe

Monday night on the train this young girl asks me how to get to 103rd Street. So I tell her. She is well dressed and attractive, and it is 3 AM and I am feeling a little protective, so I put out that maternal vibe, and she hooks right in. Tells me she is from New Orleans, how her parents’ house was in one of the better neighborhoods (her accessories are expensive), how she is here looking for a job, 22 years old, etc. But starts the ‘wind-up’. Other tourists in the subway car, heading up to their family-style hotels and hostels on the Upper West, hear the buzzwords—New Orleans, Katrina, FEMA…start to listen…

And the girl is not just winding up but smoking now—standing in car-center, using her hands and arms… suddenly her parents are devastated. I am exhausted from five sets of music, but I could swear she’d assured me her house was spared, that some strange hurricane phenomenon occurs whereby one house is untouched, the next one is flattened. And so on. And the accent—that lovely warm southern thing—has suddenly been cast aside—and a little bit of Long Island is creeping in. Now it is maybe New Jersey I am hearing, because she is on ten and eleven and these tourists- French-Canadians—are giving her questions, and she is answering with this quasi-hysteria vibe now, on fire--her face grimacing and frowning and eyebrows wild. She is preaching, losing her track now—all kinds of mis-information coming out of her mouth. The shady characters who ride the train late-nights-- the ones who ignore straight people-- are starting to take interest. Even the meth-girl who walks up and down asking for donations through gritted teeth.. she decides to pass on our car, realizes center stage is occupied.

We are generally a tough crowd, we late-night passengers. We have seen it all. Some of us have done it, too. Vaccinated by scrapes and near misses, by knowledge of things we wish we hadn’t seen, we have acquired a certain immunity. We are maybe the true New Yorkers, the ones whose apartments were NOT smashed up by Carl Lidle’s plane, who have been scammed and mugged in a non-newsworthy way, the ones who will not ever win more than $1 with a Lotto ticket, who maybe had a brief and painful bout with cancer or depression or hepatitis but are still here, on our way back from work, hanging in, courtesy of fading rent-control, the unlimited 30-day Metrocard which allows us our money’s worth, KeyFood discounts.

We are grateful for the air-conditioned cars because some of us have to return home to steamy apartments, to the permanent ghost of garbage smell which permeates our inside-air all summer, no matter what we do. We are grateful for the all-night service, no matter how infrequent. We mind our own business, sometimes enjoy a sandwich on the way home, read our newspapers, nap.

For the most part, this city feels safe to the rank-and-file. If you don’t fuck with it, it doesn’t fuck with you. If you have not much to lose and you don’t wave it around, chances are they’ll let you alone. Am I nostalgic for the good old days? When New York felt just a little edgy and haunted? When racism was closer to the surface, violence and unemployment were not as medicated and whitewashed? I was young and cute, once. Guys used to follow me home, write suicide notes. But I was one of the lucky ones. What’s the worst thing that ever happened to me? I was mugged by two women on the street who pretended to have fallen down. My place was robbed by some junkies who took not only my grandmother’s bracelets but my underwear, sheets, vitamins, old photos, shoes and sewing machine. They needed it, I finally decided as I installed iron bars on my window. One night while I played at a club called 8BC, a punk rocker yelled out “I WANT TO FUCK YOU” and drove a nail through his palm into the stagefloor. I was covered with spurting blood. In in a way I was flattered. He was a fan.

But I am older now. I am someone’s mother. Fewer fans, just audience. My enemies are in the ether-network. Silent terrorism. Our government which manipulates and cooks our books to convince us we are better off just going about our business and leaving world affairs up to them. Because we haven’t a clue what they are doing behind closed doors. The simple criminals in jails are puppies. These guys are in packs. These guys have power. Another column.

I get out and look upward to the latest series of mostly-glass Disney buildings going up in poor neighborhoods. Rich schmucks will be duped into paying millions for apartments that do not even exist—they are just marketed air-space. Billionaires forced to live right next to poor schmucks like me, because all of the best space is taken. And how did the new builders get this kind of money? Doing Enron-math? It all seems impossible when I am sorting through my crumpled bills which add up to exactly the $100 I earned playing music for 6 hours. I worked for this money. I actually enjoyed the work.

I notice my Katrina survivor-girl didn’t take my directions seriously. She followed the tourists out at 72nd Street. I can’t afford to worry about these things, even though I do.
I worry about all the kids out there, all the poor old folks who maybe couldn’t make it to the corner today to get their loaf of bread. I still talk to people. And I still, in that edgy New York City way, feel safe. I am proud to be of the dwindling rank and file, we the heroes who know the bus drivers by name, who sleep through the night or the day with all the traffic noise, without doctor’s prescriptions, without an overpriced nightcap, without a million-dollar view. We who return to our little piece of real estate which smells of our neighbors’ dinners and the perpetual New York Soup outside, and are glad that our little TV works, glad to be home, glad to be somewhat invisible. I missed the 4 AM news recap but am just in time for Sports. Baseball season again. I'm washing the sinkful of dishes my teenagers left, and I turn off the water just in time to hear the announcer yell out: 'SAFE!'

Yeah.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Desperately Seeking Bob

In the springtime I am constantly entertaining Swedes. Swedish people love New York. Of course we acknowledge the healthy and conspicuous Asian and Hispanic population here; my PTA notices now come in Spanish, English and Mandarin. But for a country whose population is smaller than that of our Metropolitan area, there is a relatively huge Swedish contingent in New York City. And New York loves the Swedes. We welcomed IKEA and H&M with financial open arms; our men love their statuesque women, our failing record companies love their charming blonde-roots version of rock and roll, we drive their Volvos and always feature Bergman at our classic film festivals.

And the Swedes love New York. What’s not to like? From a country with very few edges,
here they can feast on rude people, all-night transportation, ethnic food-fests on every street, real rock and roll, bad rock and roll, and black people. The Swedes are obsessed with black culture. They love blues, jazz, r& b, dark women. Sunday gospel services and brunches in Harlem are teeming with Scandinavians hoping to imbibe a piece of something truly authentic. Colorful. Noisy, soulful. They are a model country of perfect physical stature, a polite social democracy—looking for a soul, some grit..

I recently noticed Thelonious Monk boxsets selling on ebay for particularly high prices. Where were these people during the first decade of his solo career when he was under-acknowledged and playing clubs and bars for the very few with actual ears? Here we have to give the Swedes credit. Swedes were historically way more appreciative of American jazz musicians than we. The relative number of important live jazz performances preserved from their on-soil clubs and concert halls is serious. These guys had soul and true talent and the Swedes ate it up. For this I love the Swedes. For their jazz ears.

All that aside, having spent a fair amount of time there, and having lived with a transplanted Swede for several years, I consider myself kind of an expert. I do admit something of a weakness for their cool, sophisticated naivete. But moving into the realm of rock and roll, another story altogether. Okay, Springsteen tours in Sweden. There is actually a national lottery for tickets, he is so popular. Dylan, sometimes. But I find it particularly annoying that SAS offers a special roundtrip fare for the annual Allman Brothers extravaganza in New York. And that I am forced to spend two weeks of every spring entertaining the concert-goers. Don’t get me started. For those who missed the Grateful Dead heyday, or chose not to participate, here is a still-living (well, at least one of them) opportunity for endless extended versions, wandering riffs, a venue filled with marijuana smoke and beer guts. A chance to mingle with American Swedes and Wall Streeters who are nostalgic for something they would not have attended had they been alive at the time. Grown, rich men paying top concert price to hear a glorified bar band ramble, without the waitresses and conversation. Because who else can afford these prices? Upper middle class Americans. Swedes on holiday. This is a perfect opportunity to both ‘slum’ in an American logo’d T-shirt and jeans, and basque in the nostalgia of what they have read in Swedish guidebooks was a golden era in American rock music.

Do I sound bitter? Maybe. I did see these guys when the brothers were actually there, and when it cost maybe $3. No one will convince me that the twenty-five thousandth time they play these songs, no matter how much hot young guitar blood they import, is as good as it was. But for Swedish rock fans, as good as it gets. Personally, I need to be convinced that 2 drummers are better than one. Jimi Hendrix did it all with 3 guys. How many have come close to that? End of story.

I am always a bit baffled by the constant stream of New York tourists looking for the old CBGB’s, Café Wha, retracing the footsteps of Bob Dylan. I have seen more Ramones T-shirts in Stockholm bars in 2006 than I ever saw on St. Marks place when they were still living. The Swedes at my house have them—these people taking the old tours of New York, people from a town with a million-year past, obsessed with ‘historic’ bars and especially anywhere Bob Dylan might have jammed or sat or bummed a cigarette.

A rich Manhattan art gallery owner asked me years ago to help him make a film about the New York Underground. I laughed and said…’You mean the subway?’ Because there is, and was, no underground. This is a marketing term, and the guy made the film and made a cool umpteen million marketing this to the clueless audience who is hungry for ‘the edge’ but wouldn’t know it if they fell over it.

The fact is, some of the guys I know whose pictures are plastered all over these ‘New York Underground’ books…are living in basements, shooting insulin not heroin, being given the bum’s rush at downtown cafes, regretting they sold their old strat in 1986 for $4,000 because they needed to eat, instead of 2007 where to get that old strat back they’d have to come up with $200,000. And there it is, on the wall of Guitar Center, with their name on the provenance, while they can’t even afford a Mexican-made new el-cheapo version, and the kid behind the counter is treating you like a bum, giving you attitude because he can’t afford to waste time with a customer who is here to buy a couple of strings. Maybe even wearing your old band’s T-shirt. Irony, I think this is called.

The thing is, if the Swedish and other tourists were around in the good old days, they might not have known the real deal from the fake, because it wasn’t in guide books. It wasn’t always obvious. It often came in a smelly unwashed package, in a crummy bar or café where the performers alternated between undeveloped genius and bad comics—jugglers, badly dressed poets missing teeth. They wouldn’t have enjoyed Café Wha nearly as much as they do now, where they immortalize it in their digital albums—smiling, clean and blonde, in front of the old posters…

Tonight I might go down and sit in a dive bar—one of the last of a dying breed, because how many of these can still afford the New York mall real-estate prices? And there, while I am drinking from an underwashed glass, sharing the bar with one or two hip investment bank types, but mostly frustrated young musicians, shut-out old ones, some toothless locals and dogs who wander in…there, I might hear, between the really rough acts with the digeridoos and squeaky violins, the too-loud garage-rock posers, overmade-up and tattooed girls, painfully-pierced aging adolescents…I might hear someone real. And they’ll pass the hat, like they do, and I’ll take the subway back to my place where the drunk Swedes will have completed another red-star ‘tourist’ day searching for the ghosts of the New York ‘Underground’, and I’ll just listen.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

4000 Holes in Blacksburg, Virginia (I read the news today...)

As the Virginia Tech horror unfolded yesterday, I think all parents everywhere felt its poignancy-- the ones stressing out about their children’s college applications, the ones watching fetal heartbeats on sonograms, the ones changing diapers, the ones exasperated at 2-year-old tantrums, the ones in hospitals waiting for MRI and biopsy results, and the ones who have to wonder where their sons and daughters have wandered-- when they will come home, who might hurt or mislead them, praying always that their underformed judgment might not take them into a dangerous zone, and that the simple luck of the draw will be on their side.

Two points. One, the right to bear firearms in this country has become a huge liability. Each of us has the human ability and justification to defend ourselves against danger or threat, but with a fully mobilized law enforcement system not to mention a military in place, the usefulness of this ‘freedom’ has once again proven itself lethal. I cannot fathom that a large percentage of those who question a woman’s personal right of decision to bear a child insist that they maintain the right to bear a weapon whose only purpose I can see is to kill another’s.

Some strange parallel here with last week’s posterboy/antihero Imus who abused a constitutional freedom to insult and slander over our ‘free’ airwaves...
This week a depressed and deranged individual used his constitutional right to take the for-the-most-part young lives of 32 individuals who were involved in a humanitarian pursuit of knowledge.

So the system failed twice. The ability to purchase a firearm should have been restricted if not prohibited. Why should a university conform to the gun laws of its own state? A university is an institution of learning, a body in and of itself. These students are from everywhere. They don't vote in that state. They believe what they believe. There is no time in a young person's life like university. They are free-- unburdened-- thirsty to learn, to explore-- becoming. It is their intellectual cocoon.The first pledged allegiance, as we found the hard way, should have been to the nurturing and protection of its students. Of course, neither the University nor the state of Virginia had the right to restrict the freedom of this misled individual who has now changed our history books.


Second point: One always gets nervous when one hears the suffix ‘est’. While the Boston marathoners were running to determine The Fastest, at Virginia tech someone won achieved the designation ‘Deadliest’. In a free society like ours, this becomes a Ripley’s entry. Like a dare. And for every single statistic in our record books, there is at least one individual out there intent on bettering that number. Just several weeks ago a student killed his girlfriend and her best friend because the friend cautioned against the relationship. There was the school killing in Pennsylvania. Columbine has been near-fictionalized.

I can’t help thinking my own kids are processing television coverage of this incident a bit like a film, because it is hard for them to distinguish the real from fiction. My 17-year-old wraps his brain around '24' but cannot quite understand the reality of terorism in this world. The 23 year-old Virginia Tech gunman somehow crossed a border from reality to some nightmarish fantasy, to the actual execution of this mass murder. And of course the simple use of a semi-automatic weapon made this easier-- closer to child’s play.

I know my own kids, in order to play on a sports team, have to pass some medical tests. To make sure that they are able to withstand physically the stress of athletic challenge—to protect them. But what about some mental stress test? Has anyone thought of this? And has anyone considered the effects of these anti-depressants and other drugs which are dispensed a bit like candy to applicants showing need. And need, as often as not, is simply their word against anyone's.

One of my kids had some trouble in the 7th grade. Minor bad-boy incidents. But the school didn’t like it. Maybe he is depressed, they suggested, when they called me in for counseling. Well, maybe I am, says my 13-year-old. So what? So we were led down the road of that year’s model anti-depressant called Effexor which led us 3 months later to the Emergency room where he was admitted and forced to detox in an adolescent psych facility where, coincidence of coincidences, 14 of 16 inpatients, most of them with the same Medicaid-type insurance as we have, had also been prescribed this new drug. One of them was even from my son’s class, He’d been picked up waiting to jump into the autumn waters of the East River. Something had gone amiss.

After 3 weeks and tons of red tape to get my child released, they couldn’t quite make a diagnosis. At this point the papers were full of horror stories about Effexor and its use among teens. That it caused hallucinations, nightmares, states of extreme agitation and anxiety, extremely high blood pressure and the symptoms of rapid heartbeat and asthma which brought us to the Emergency room. Rage. Tantrums. Suicides. It had been banned in the UK.

So we were free. With follow-up treatment. Next clinic appointment, without even looking at my boy, the Psych prescribes. For what, I ask? Well, he gets either anti-depressants or hospitalization. Those were my choices. Medicaid, second-rung style psychiatric treatment. All those poor kids in the hospital. A few had completely dysfunctional families. Caught in the system, their parents fed them whatever pills were dispensed. The streams of diagnoses: ADHD, ODD, Conduct Disorder, bi-polarity, etc. So I went down in their medical records as being an uncooperative, maybe incompetent parent who refused to follow psychiatric recommendations. But my kid was clean. He went back to school and misbehaved a little. By 15 he grew out of it. I often wonder about those other kids in the psych-ward. A few of them were already repeat-patients. Caught in the loop.

I’m not on the side of mass murderers, but I am sympathetic to mental illness. When it is undiagnosed or misdiagnosed or mistreated, it is not only contagious but deadly. It needs, like meningitis or measles, to be quarantined. Our kids need to be protected, sometimes from themselves. Somehow this one fell through the cracks. And our Republican government made sure that instead of proper mental healthcare, he received his right to purchase a weapon and inflict his rage on innocent victims, on the tragically aborted young lives whose mothers’ grief I can scarcely imagine. And for their friends and students everywhere, another End of the Innocence. Another reminder that even our Ivory towers are not only not immune but vulnerable. Innocence is always vulnerable. Freedom is vulnerable.

A tragedy of this magnitude does not easily translate into lessons learned. That will come a bit later. For now we have not just 32 or 33 but thousands of holes in Blacksburg, Virginia, and millions more in our hearts. At least some of the bulletholes in our future can be prevented.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Full Frontal Vomiting

So I’ve observed at my gym a good proportion of TV screens tuned into House. A man after my own heart. With points for the actor for pulling off the American attitude accent with credibility. Good personal ratings. Plus the character’s got a disability. Not the kind that interferes with his face or sexuality, but the physical presence of pain and suffering gives him a VIP card into women’s hearts. The hero thing. We love scars, as long as they’re not vanity scars. Unfortunately it doesn’t work the other way. Men do not take naturally to the ‘caretaking’ role. Not in their genetics. They file the family tax return, take their office stress like a man, often adore their kids (the Brad Pitt syndrome)…but the average single man does not come on to a woman he knows has had some kind of hidden, possible disfiguring surgery. What builds character in a man should build character in a woman. Maybe, but the sex-appeal quotient is different.

Anyway, I notice on Tuesday a few people are actually grimacing and audibly registering disgust…so I am thinking-- what gives? Is there some ultra-bloody surgical monstrosity? This kind of reaction is highly unusual. And sure enough, as I tune in---the episode takes place on a plane, and passengers are turning green and puking in the aisles. Something we can all relate to.

Now, I am just a musician—never been to med school, drew the line at dissecting a fetal pig in Biology, even though it meant a C plus. No, thank you. I've also noticed in recent years my kids’ uncanny ability to sit in front of the TV totally unperturbed while onscreen fingers and ears are sliced off, political prisoners are tortured unmercifully, swords sliced through throat and spinal cords. Not only do they not flinch, but they are capable of eating through the whole ordeal. Now I remember feeling physically uncorked after Reservoir Dogs. Discovery Channel Style surgery, on the other hand, is occasionally interesting. Maybe because the victim is anesthetized. Maybe for me the threshold is not the blood but the pain factor.

So what gives with this House episode? Nobody gasps at ER. No backward jerks of the head or expletives when a severed arm is carried in, when an accident victim or a traumatized birth-mother bleeds out 5 pints on camera. But suddenly this audible expression of cardio-disgust, like a wave. What gives is that apparently vomit is the new blood. Actors used to turn their head, run off to the bathroom—we’d hear the sound effects, the gagging and the liquid splat, while we imagined the worst. But now, not just on House, : Full Frontal Vomiting. Nearly the entire gym was watching this. And like the passengers on board that airplane, definitely an empathic sort of nausea permeating the gym. Like a palpable sour smell in the room. I could have sworn to it. Real TV. Always pushing the envelope of shock, of audience tolerance, of taste. And come to think of it, would you choose vomiting over another evening of back-to-back episodes of I Love New York, the show that proved white trash and black trash equally non-entertaining? You bet. That yappy-mouthed crazy-assed bitch without the presence of the charming and always-lovable Flava-Flav. Like Lassie without the dog.

Actually, have any of the diet specialists thought of this as a way of brainwashing overeaters? To have them watch unrelenting footage of truly disgusting vomiting—not just the puke-yellow soupy stuff we saw on House, but pieces—New England Clam Chowder style. I’ll bet the dvd version would sell like gangbusters. Move over Richard Simmons and Jenny Craig. For those of us who aren’t gifted with our own over-developed gag reflex, it’s the full-frontal-vomiting deterrent diet. I’ll bet all those compulsive night-exercisers who are hooked on the food channel went home and ate less after the House episode.

Actually, vomiting has become so popular, they even feature bulimics now on those Intervention shows. They boost the ratings. The alcoholics and meth-addicts are not always as photogenic as the young-ish women with the eating disorders. I watched one entire episode with absolute prime-time rapt attention in which a young girl who looked like she had wandered off the set of the OC drove around in an SUV all day ordering super-sized meals and then puking them up by the side of the road. Then started the process all over until she was exhausted. And it was not just her life that was so simultaneously fascinating and horrifying way more than cutting or breast enhancement reality shows or surgery, but the fact that her entire existence had been reduced to eating and throwing up which was putting her into enough debt to have to work nights as a stripper.

The IFC and Sundance fans among us are well accustomed to seeing intimate human acts onscreen. Conversations on the toilet, body functions. But an entire real-life documentary with actual sequential vomiting-- the viewer realizing that a camera crew is following this girl around, riding in her car while she wolfs down bag after bag of fries, taco after taco, calls her Dad for money, and just matter-of-factly pulls up at these roadside dumpsters and does her thing, talks about how her parents would be horrified if they knew she stripped. And I began to think, it isn’t the men that will stuff bills into her G-string that are the voyeurs, it is the Intervention viewing audience, in which I now find myself. With the creepy sensation that some line of decency, some perverse invasion of humanity has been traversed. It is not just the edgy existence of this girl's life, but the fact that the packaging of this has become entertainment. And however they put the spin on these shows, however they claim to present a rehabilitative example and some kind of hope to the desperate and helplessly addicted population, this has become the lowest and lamest form of voyeurism. Because the worst addicts are rarely watching TV. And certainly people in denial do not choose to watch Intervention. Not to mention that the bulimics are too busy driving around and ordering food and quick-cycling it. As for me, I came away feeling disturbed and guilty. Like after a David Lynch film.

But at least I'm feeling something, because my kids are so inured to the gratuitous violence and sex, they actually laugh when someone’s head is lopped off after begging for mercy with an intensity that forces me to hold my ears from the kitchen. They weren’t watching House because they were checking out MTV’s latest reality show where skateboarders and mostly kids perform risky stunts and suffer excruciating real-life injuries on camera, in real time, just for the entertainment of these viewing teenagers. Just to up the ante of how much pain can be funny. Remember in some nostalgic era they once tried to ban the Three Stooges? Remember Mr. Bill? At least he was a puppet. My 17 year old cried at Bambi not so many years ago. Now we have the crash-ups, the injuries without the sport. Just fast-forward to the blood and guts. Cut to the chase. Or chase to the cut. Gratuitous and painful TV vomiting.

Do I sound like old Tipper Gore? At least in her day there was musical accompaniment. Are these the new Gladiators? Or is it just all 21st-century wholesome fun in the good old harmless name of .....That's entertainment!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Brontosaurus Realty

This morning my son forgot something on the way out to school. Like many Manhattan apartments, the bell is downstairs, not on the door. So, having turned around before he left the building, he was now smashing my front door for about 5 minutes before I noticed that the now-usual soundtrack of banging and hammering was coming in counterpoint.

There are endless public service alerts about diabetes, heart attacks, cancer—statistics that every single one of us will either contract or be affected by this or that disease. What they don’t tell you is that while you are either waiting for or undergoing the next health crisis, there is conservatively at least a 99 percent chance that you will be adversely affected by your neighbor’s apartment renovation. And if you are not sick, it will either make you sick or debilitate your immune system to maximum susceptibility. Or maybe, like the real estate conspiracy which is now Manhattan, it will force you to move and thus provide two new commission opportunities for the ever-eager agents who fill your mailbox every day with enough self-serving crap to fuel an average highrise and cut your building oil consumption in half. Which might bring on another war...but that is another column.

I live in a pre-war building. In fact pre-both wars. If you really want to own a piece of Manhattan, you want to own a real piece of the original Manhattan rock. Before they ruined it. From back when architecture and aesthetics meant something besides winning a contest. When quality of life and urban democracy were actual values, not phrases your kids pick up from Sparknotes history. The old, genuine New York billionaires still own townhouses, Park Avenue, Fifth Avenue homes. Renovated school buildings, carriage houses. Not the 21st century eyesores which are investments in developers, not the city.
These new buildings have not only not withstood the tests of time, but I often wonder, in an aerial moral mirror—the way that vampires don’t reflect...most of these would disappear. They don’t even count. The way real jazz fans know only vinyl really rocks, these new buildings are the architectural version of a download. Glass is not necessarily class.

I fell in love with my building. I loved the architecture, the soaring lobby space, the high ceilings and elegant bone structure of my home-to-be, despite the obtrusive pipes, the clanky radiators, the cracks and the sloping floors. I didn’t care that it had no view; like most New Yorkers I can’t remember ever having the downtime to sit around and look out of a window. Okay, not much light. But the price was oh-so-right, and my neighbors were old Democrats—journalists, writers, composers, intellectuals. Real New Yorkers. I bought a run-down wreck of a place, and I renovated. The old-fashioned way. Three days. I put up a wall, built in some bookshelves, plastered and painted, primed the floors and I was in. Maybe my neighbors downstairs had to experience the discomfort of the sanding machine I rented for a total of 4 hours during an afternoon.

One by one the old Democrats are dropping out. Our maintenance, which used to include one live-in-superintendant’s salary, was efficient, frugal. These days, the good old real estate agents, just to make their ill-deserved commission, tell prospective tenants we are in the process of hiring doormen, elevator men, putting in a Yoga studio. The new buyers who have paid up to one hundred times more than the older tenants? Well, they are angry. Vicious. They want these services. They will turn this old tenement into a white-glove full-service building no matter what. No matter how many times the maintenance doubles or triples because compared to their over-inflated salaries, this is Wall Street small change. Not so, for those on fixed social security, who were comparatively underpaid for brilliant and life-changing work. Not for the starving artists, the musicians who like myself are living on $10 a day. On a good day. And feel guilty, because some of my musical genius friends are living in a car. Without a motor.

Whatever. The poor old structure I bought into is being drilled, poked, sawed, re-trussed, undercut and humiliated. Walls are gone. Landmarked hallways are appropriated by investment bankers into private entrances, storage closets. They want a lobby that looks like a Plastic Surgeon's waiting room. Jacuzzis are installed, architecturally extravagant bathroom and laundry luxuries beyond the capacity of our poor old pipes which served so well for 100 years. My kitchen ceiling has fallen in so many times I have a monthly sheetrock allowance in my budget. Who pays for this? My insurance premiums are higher than anything I ever got back. Hard to document the damage when my camera was engulfed in the last flood.

And these people who spend millions on the space, then millions on the renovation-- whose architects are wearing Armani and carrying the plans in Gucci tubes-- do you know what happens when their workers poke a hole which fills your stove and refrigerator with 40 gallons of filthy water? They will sic their pitbull lawyers on you and claim that you caused them to lose 3 weeks of work by questioning the department of buildings. You will be looking at a personal lawsuit of 2 million dollars because you offended their contractor. Any excuse to get rid of you because you are to them like an ugly piece of exposed pipe. They want to obliterate every single sign of funk or humanity or soul. Total architectural and human whitewashing.

So 8 apartments to a floor became 4, 4 became 2….now they are looking to expand because 6000 square feet is not enough for a family of 4 with a staff of 6. One of my old rockstar friends asked me to show his massive townhouse which he is abandoning because he hates his bourgeois neighbors. People came in and asked ‘Wow, 13 bedrooms… he must have a lot of kids’. He had exactly 2 legally and maybe a few other tentatives, and maybe one of them spent an occasional holiday there. Average Manhattan people with 13 bedrooms have 1 or 2 kids, if that. Average families with 13 kids live in Harlem in 1 or 2-bedroom apartments. That is Manhattan real estate Math 101.

But back to my little corner of the rock. Besides the massive damage, the floods, the rude workmen who play bad music loud and usurp the elevators when you need to get your 40 pound amplifier down stairwells blocked with construction materials, apparently these people are entitled to use the courtyard just beneath me for cutting metal pipes, buzzsawing, anything that might cause damage to the brand new renovation. Apparently this is their right--their workroom. And the Carnegie Hall guy must have designed the acoustics of this courtyard, because you can actually hear what they are eating for lunch. That is, when your ears stop ringing.

I am a musician. I not only work nights and need to sleep occasionally during daytime hours, but I also compose music. Or used to. No way to record anything living when this kind of work is constant. Even locked in my bathroom with the shower running, the sawing, clanging and banging can cause hearing damage. I actually asked the owners how much longer their workmen would be…and the only reason the guy condescended to answer me is because he likes the Allman Brothers. Like we are on some kind of common ground here because I play in a rock band. Does he suspect, if I could ever afford a ticket to these same venues I actually play, that I would like to see the Allman brothers in 2007? Do I go even when I have been on their guest list? Time for me is money. Not the kind of money he is familar with; the one-step-above-welfare kind. First of all, it is the Allman brother. And second and third--- well, another column. Anyway, 'Maybe another year' was the guy's answer. A YEAR? An entire city with a complex subway system could be built in a year.

Last week the ante was upped. My books actually started falling from the shelves. The whole place was shaking. I can sleep through a Blue Cheer soundcheck when I’m really tired, but I literally panicked that the fictional urban earthquake had finally begun. Well, it seems the new owners decided they didn’t like the view out of their daughter’s bedroom, so they were making new windows. Drilling through 3 feet of old New York stone and brickwork in my landmarked building. This is MY COOP! MY CITY!!! I requested an engineer's inspection because when a building this solid shakes, it’s terrifying. But even city agencies back down in the face of the monumental dollar signs of my new neighbors. And of course I am waiting for the latest lawsuit which they will dole out as revenge, while my poor old neighbors—the ones who used to run the newspapers and institutions of this city, the old friends of Greta Garbo, Mingus, Andy Warhol—they are cowering in the elevator, waiting to be called badly dressed eyesores and building liabilities. Waiting for the next increase, the next lawsuit. Victims of the New York City real-estate Tsunami.

I can’t even wish for the deluge to swallow up the bad people, because they are my partners in this building. My share of the pie is tiny, but it is the same pie. Although, as we all know, sometimes the first bite is the best. It is about taste and palette and ingredients and aesthetics and art. By the fifth mouthful it is about greed and power and, okay, so I only got one bite but the rest will go straight to their butt. Which they have lipo-suctioned and personal-trained away anyway, because the real greedy fat-cats, the ones who can afford the great mass quantities of food, are all thin in inverse proportion to their super-sized living space. While the 13 children in Harlem are not anorexic but BIG children, living on foodstamp-quality meals without gym memberships in tiny apartments. Why are these thin people with the enormous bank accounts insisting on overpaying for massive empty space? To accommodate their 11 9-foot TV’s? Because the maximum viewing point is 50 feet back? They have country houses, too, so it can’t be recreational. Is it related to the expensive car/small genital syndrome? I call it Brontosaurus real estate. Occupying the largest space ever, owning the hugest stock portfolio, making the most noise when you walk, when you move….with the smallest brain. These dinosaurs were not even fighters—not even carnivores. Vegans. Just scaring the shit out of their larger-brained efficient little neighbors with their massive, useless size. Shaking the beds we sleep in with their Brontosaurean renovations and their Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum coop politics.

So let’s all hope Darwinian principles will prevail in Manhattan. With all due respect to Al Gore, let’s hope this recent April cold-spell signals a new Ice Age.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

The Imperfect Storm

Last night I played one of those forgettable gigs in a sort of converted Chinese restaurant. Come to think of it, it could have been a dry-cleaner’s. Not only was the money pretty marginal, but the owner gave us a hard time about the pretty thin crowd. Like it is our fault she runs a tight operation which is not conducive to chilling and listening to music and she is always breathing down the neck of drinkers, making sure they are paying up for the less-than 2 square feet of bar stool they occupy, and never ever comps even a dumpling, no matter how many people are in the place, no matter how many times we let the cute bartender sing “Proud Mary’ which on the average musician’s priority list is just one place higher than an enema.

And while you are packing up, the designated driver who is maybe one drink behind his passengers and tomorrow will not only not remember having heard music but how he drove home, comes up and says ‘Hey, youse guys are great! D’you have a card?’ And just to relieve him of the burden of having to empty his wallet of unnecessary garbage, you answer ‘No, I don’t.’ And he gives you his, which is undoubtedly that of a mortgage lender, or a used car dealer, with cell numbers crossed out, rewritten, etc. There are 2 kinds of professional New York City musicians: the kind that throw these cards away with the discarded string packs before they leave the club, or the ones that wait until they get home. Because like the boulevard of broken dreams, card exchanging is not only a thing of the past, but filing them away and expecting any future contact is about as realistic as saving monopoly money.

Besides, there is the internet. Anyone can find anyone on the internet. Except maybe my ex-husband who owes 16 years of child support. But that’s another column. And if I were to have a business card, what would it say? I joked with a band member that I would have one printed up with my full name and underneath it, ‘Negro’. I could have another one that says ‘Caucasian’. I will have one done for the restaurant owner which says ‘Cat Killer’. Or ‘Wanted by the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Guitarists. ‘

A woman I recognized from my neighborhood Citibank where she is a teller, hands out a card in bars with her name and below it ‘Astrologer’. Does that give her authority to predict your future? To write horoscopes? In my local neighborhood café there used to be this crazy woman who sat all day with a Macintosh laptop, consuming record quantities of caffeine and running her mouth so that you’d have to use headphones just to be able to swallow. Anyway, I’d overhear her telling people she had a column, and she was working. Turns out she, too, was an amateur astrologer, with a column maybe in the local Marcal gazette. But one day this old loudmouth crank who stalked the neighborhood walked right up to her while she was yapping and said ’You’re not an astronomer… the only way you could see Stars is if I whacked you over the head with that stupid machine. You’re a Quack”! I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe. She had to move to another neighborhood. Actually by now she’s probably doing the Stars for the Daily News. No fact-checking for horoscopes.

Did you ever look up song lyrics on the internet? There’s anyone’s version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit”, all kinds of variations of Hendrix songs (the famous ‘Kiss This Guy’)--
how many of us admit how many times we slowed down Foxey Lady to decipher that last ‘You make me feel like….???’. And the chord charts—musical transcriptions. They’re so far from accurate you’d think the authors were deliberately trying to mislead hungry young guitar players. Sometimes I think the whole music thing is like a game of telephone where one person plays something cool, then Eric Clapton redoes it, then some 3rd generation guy redoes Clapton, and so on down the line until we wind up in the massive sea of musical mediocrity of today. And for genuine musicians, and I am not counting myself among these—remember, I have no business card, I make no claim--The Perfect Storm. The mega-monstrous tsunami-esque absolute un-navigable monsoon of internet-publishing, computer-generated recording, voracious downloading and unstoppable marketing of musical props that have overwhelmed and swallowed up the tiny little rowboat of what used to pass as genuine music.

So what difference does it make what we put on our cards…we are all the disillusioned and duped losers who happen to not just own guitars but maybe have some experience playing them, and at one point may have had something genuine to say or play. Or not. No fact-checking in the field of musical creativity, either.

Today I was in the subway and some horrific guy was whacking at his brand new badass bass guitar which wasn’t even in tune. One or two people actually put some money in his case. I looked at first for a sign which might have indicated the guy was handicapped or deaf…but no— and he was actually kind of cute. I asked one young guy who threw in a coin—‘are you actually encouraging him?’ And of course he first had to take out his earbuds and ask ‘What?’ because almost every single person on the train platform is now listening to their own ipod and maybe the bass-player realizes it doesn’t matter what he plays because no one is listening anyway. So this guy responds ‘ I just broke up with my girlfriend and I bought this disposable camera and I wanted to get rid of the change’. Good answer. A little more information than I needed, but good answer. So I offered to take his picture in front of the deaf bass-player, with his earbuds in, not listening, to document his very first Kodak moment as a single guy, and he was thrilled. ‘I’ll send you one, he offered…do you have a card?’ Do I have a card! I pulled one from my back pocket which I had forgotten to throw out. It was from the restaurant gig last night, from the last set where people request tunes and we are at that point starving because they are too cheap to give us a foodbreak until the kitchen is actually closed. It was a card with the restaurant's name in Chinese and on the back I had written in my own request to cheer the guitar player up: ‘Anything from column A’, it said.

If my camera-friend is a musician he’ll toss it before the next stop anyway.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

April is the Cruelest Month

So a friend of mine got dumped by her boyfriend last night. Not just any friend—my best-looking ever semi-known actress-type friend—the kind of girl that everybody stares at when you walk down the street, the kind that you walk into a bar with and become invisible. I love looking into her eyes, and she can really act, she’s not one of those vapid LA chicks. But she got dumped by this screenwriter guy who was a little too suspiciously handsome. Like if you were ordering little plastic figures for your perfect dollhouse, he would be the most requested model of husband/father.

When you’re a regular person and you get dumped, well—it’s like being one of those lumpy potatoes that gets passed over for a smoother one. You’re used to it. But when you’re like the it-girl, well, she was devastated enough to have to pull over to the side of the road and call her old friend in New York who is certainly more experienced at endings. That’s the thing about musicians. We understand that for every piece, there’s a beginning, a bridge, the chorus, and then the end. Brrrm bmmm. But for this girl, there was the shock of it all, and the disbelief that this bastard—heck, any bastard, would dare pass her up for a better looking model, because there aren’t too many this beautiful, and with the talent and a brain, too.

So I spent a good couple of hours just listening, then trying to make her laugh, then when my battery was completely dead I hung up and thought about how sometimes everything you are just isn’t good enough, and how some guys that go after this kind of girl don’t really want the prize, they want to be in training forever. The actual Olympic event is a let-down. You can have the medal, the girl, around your neck—her kids, whatever… but it’s not the same. And sometimes—even when you get what you want, it’s just not what you want.

It takes years—sometimes until you’re too old to be good-looking—to feel comfortable in your skin. And for two people like this to get together, find each other—well, near-impossible.

Last night my teenage son was on his way out looking like either a drug dealer or some kind of reverse super-hero, with the hoodie, the backward hat, and those 70’s looking sunglasses that have unfortunately been revived. 'So lose at least one of those 3 things,' I suggested. 'Go fuck yourself,' he responds, which means I’ll do what I want and come back when I want. He’s having trouble with some girl—some actually real girl from his school, who maybe feels somewhat comfortable enough in her own skin to recognize that he is not. So this gives her ‘the edge’ which is death-to-relationships if you are a teen. It is torturing him; I can hear him tossing in bed at night, IM-ing like mad, even trying sincerity out occasionally. Of course I can’t help him; he does not receive on adult channels. I can only protest that a fashion ‘statement’ is something audible and since fashion is visual, anything bleeding over to another sense, means it is LOUD and uncomfortable for the audience. This is not going to bring him love. Nor do most teens actually process it as love anyway, even when it smacks them in the face.

So what does he want? He’s not sure. Probably the thing that eludes him—the human condition thing; like wanting to be older and then being older and you still don’t have ‘it’.
Do good things come to those who wait? Not necessarily. These days some good things come to those who can afford plastic surgery or gastric bypass, or a winning lotto ticket. But we are all ourselves—no matter how we repaint and renovate. We can only convince the rest of the world that we are what we wear or what we listen to or where we hang out.
All of a sudden one day we wake up and realize we don’t know where the heck we are—like we have lost some road map, or suddenly left is right, and North is South, and we come up out of the subway all disoriented. But we are still here—I am I.

I once had to play after some great Motown musician. I told him it was unbearable to have to follow him. He looked me in the eye—right in the eye—and he said—‘Look, girl, with music, you either is or you isn’t. And you is.’ I thought about that for years. It wasn’t until two husbands, kids later, way further on down the road, that I realized. Whatever. It may not be what I thought it would be, but it 'is'.

Yesterday it was snowing in April. I was freezing and ducked into some side-street café attached to a supermarket. Old people in there—homeless people, students with computers. Not the trendy kind of café. Coffee still a dollar a cup. They were about to close, but there was still enough in the pot for a large. An old black man was mopping up, asked me how I liked my coffee, asked me if I could take home any cake in the place, which one I’d pick. I pointed to the chocolate mud. 'You got it right, girl,' he said. And then he told me it was his birthday, and all day he’d been mopping up and the boss said he could take home any cake in the display that was left at the end of the day. As I put my cup in the trash they were boxing up the mudcake. ‘May your birthday wishes come true’, I said to him. He winked at me and pointed to the cake. ‘Oh, they already is’, he said.

And he ‘was’. And one day my best friend and my teenage son ‘will be’. And me, 5 AM at my computer, my old guitar by my side—I might already ‘is’, too.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Jesus Chocolate Christ

Okay. Good Friday. I once sang backup on a song that went ‘It’s Good Friday. Nothing’s even closed. I didn’t even ask for it and someone’s dying for me.’

Well, it’s not exactly the dying we’re celebrating. It’s the resurrecting, I guess. But of all the millions of Easter baskets chock full of chocolate cream eggs and jelly beans and candy rabbits, how many contain a cross or even a small remembrance of the crucifixion, the ascension, the return of Jesus? And although the song was lame… aside from the department store sales, the Get-Out-of-Work-Early card, what does Good Friday mean to most of us? Was this the sort of irony the artist Cosimo Cavallero was getting at?

This year we were not permitted to look at his six-foot chocolate image of Jesus. At least not in the chocolate flesh. But of course the image was plastered on the cover of literally millions of tabloid covers, so the entire country, not just the sophisticated art public was treated to an even more exploitive version of the piece whose creator had to be a monk in a monastery candy factory if he thought this was not going to be a publicity as opposed to an art piece.

So was it the chocolate or the anatomically correct genitalia which offended the Cardinal? What do you think? Mexican crèches have been made for hundreds of years in Navidad-edible versions. Tom Waits even wrote about the chocolate Jesus years ago. And the erotic bakers of New York have been making edible genitals for years. Art galleries have allowed performance artists to roll around naked in food, to relieve themselves publicly, to crucify themselves. The church occasionally whines, but no huge tabloid story. Not since the Saviour’s image was smeared with elephant poop at the Brooklyn Museum years ago. And what happened? The artist’s sales soared. Obviously Cavallero was not unaware of this.

Did the artist intend to mock Jesus? Because he is chocolate? Because he is brown? And what if he were a wooden Jesus? A bronze one? Do these church officials realize what it costs these days to cast a life-sized statue in bronze? Only the very rich can do this. Did anyone smear the statue with excrement? Put a rolex on his hand? Pierce his tongue or tattoo his chest with a Judas Priest emblem? Of course not. The dirty thoughts were in the eye of the beholder. Just because Jesus is technically edible, and in the eyes of a cannibal, aren’t we all, does this lay the ground for the next level question? The loaded question: Which part should I eat first? The image we all try to eradicate from our head of some Pam-Anderson type sampling Jesus’s most forbidden mystery.

I remember my Mom giving me a Barbie and Ken doll for Christmas. I didn’t particularly ask for this, but after I opened them, she asked for the Ken. So… ? Is he anatomically correct, she had to know? Well, he was anatomically ambiguous. But none of us, even the most base-thinking—imagine God without clothing. We don’t go there. So…is it not human to have looked over the chocolate Jesus and noticed that he resembled a man? Was that not the whole point of Jesus? That he was human in all ways, suffered and lived within the confines of his human body, died in human agony?
My new expression: Jesus Chocolate Christ.

Today I received from a comedian friend a charming but dark Easter e-card which depicted two chocolate bunnies conversing. The first had a large bite from his tail end. As I recall, the cottontail was the first bite we took as kids of our enormous Barricini Easter rabbit.. Anyway, this bunny was captioned: “Ouch, my butt hurts”. And the other bunny, whose ears had been bitten off (our next preferred childhood mouthful), says ‘What?’

So I present this to a film-maker friend who happens to be an animal lover. And he was offended. Chewed me out (no pun intended). Funny, I seem to remember some high art painting with a similar exchange. It was selling for 6 or 7 figures. Art? Bad humor? A question of ‘Taste’?

At least the Jesus was chocolate. If it was deemed to be in such bad taste, I would like to contest that had we been permitted to sample it, it might have tasted good. Okay, okay. That was a cheap one. But now I may not eat my chocolate bunny this year, either. I may just eat the eggs—even though they came from the same vat of mush, even though they were poured into arbitrary molds and if they were broken up into little pieces, they would simply be candy.

And how many Hollywood Christ movies have we seen? How many Jesuses with six-pack abs and hard bodies. Are these banned by the Church because girls and women are admiring his body? Confusing the actor with the son of God? Fantasizing? What did he look like anyway? Mel Gibson? Willem Dafoe? Jeffrey Hunter? Kurt Cobain?

Is there a law against Jesus tattoos? Necklaces? Balloons? Plates? Candles? Not that I know of. Last week the city came out in favor of circumcision, as an AIDS preventive. Ouch. What I want to know is, did anyone happen to notice, during the week before Passover, was the 6-foot Jesus—well, kosher?

Jesus Chocolate Christ!

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Let Them Eat (Warhol) Hot Dogs. Or: Wrap It Up

4/04
Raining today. Spring, finally. And it’s raining. Definitely not a beach day. Actually I like the rain. I like the fact that it’s Passover and there’s way less competition for the $1 bagged up bagels at Food Emporium. Which makes you think it’s not the economically challenged who buy these, but maybe the Jews.

There’s an anecdote someone told me once—about this Hassidic guy who was walking down the street on the Sabbath and there right on the sidewalk was a twenty. Crisp, new paper with old Andrew Jackson just staring him in the Jew eye. And he stops—dead like a time-freeze-- because it’s the Sabbath and he can’t handle money. But he can’t handle the concept of this bill on the street, easy money. And which will win? I forget the story. Maybe he decides it’s a sign from God—a gift, like manna. Or maybe it’s like Jewish temptation. Maybe he stands there until sundown when he can pick it up.

I don’t mean to dis Jews. It is just the religious taboo thing, and the Hassidic silhouette that seems compelling. But it is anyone, I think, who has the genetics of poverty in their DNA. Such people are always having to publicly thumb their nose at the extravagance of life as a regular person, toss gold coins to the wind, or fretting perpetually about every single cent that could potentially have been saved and invested. Or all of the above.

Trust me. I have been in the homes of people whose names are on the plaques of some very big institutions. I have seen their twenty-year-old underwear that they keep for when no one is looking, seen them watch their cleaning ladies with an eagle-eye to make sure they do not not use more than one can of tunafish for their lunch. And not too much mayonnaise. It’s expensive.

Trust me, because I am currently and perhaps forever warped by poverty. Forget about clothing. Sales no longer tempt me; fashion does nothing. It is the essentials. I can’t pass a 99-cent store in East Harlem without checking the price of a gallon of Tide. And here’s the thing: I will use generic everything—Corn Flakes, Crisp Rice, Oatmeal, toilet paper, butter, yoghurt, whatever. But detergent? Rhymes with Pride. Like a superstition. Where I draw my personal line.

On the other side, you have this culture of extreme greed going on in Manhattan. Not just excessive, vulgar amassing of assets, but competitive greed. Like competitive eating. We have competitive stock portfolios, hedge funds, Art Auctions where these people stand up and make outrageous bets on objects they have been advised will compound geometrically. Even though they couldn’t tell a Picasso from a Basquiat. And check this out: I would estimate 90 percent of the so-called art experts couldn’t tell a real from a fake Basquiat if they were held at gunpoint. And Warhol? Don’t get me started. The posthumous Warhol market.

There is just so much available real estate in New York City. They have built up, down and to the very edge. Now there is the Real Estate of Art. Soon you will be able to search online Sotheby’s and Christie’s catalogues by size, period, price-range, color. We already have the Pre-war and Postwar. That makes art user-friendly for the nouveau competitive consumers.
There are one or two contemporary artists who mock the masters—who forge, dissemble….I have even noticed in the last auction, the Miro look-alikes actually sold for more than the real Miros. The Art Advisors had to be working overtime for this deal. And is it that these people are mocking themselves? Or do they think that paying $500,000 for a Warhol mockery actually swindles the average cocktail party guest into believing you have the 6 million dollar Warhol. And it’s not a fake, or a forgery, it is a smart-Warhol. You are so hip. And no hotdogs on your hors d-oeuvres platter. Oh, no.

Just like the winner of the Nathan’s contest is the skinny Asian guy, there are very few fat people in the competitive greed game. Well—he is a true athlete, while they have to work out and stay on diets because God-forbid they should be guilty of the sin of gluttony which I always thought was a form of greed. One and the same. Consumer-itis.

But it is Passover: the season where something is given up. And Lent. No major art auctions until this is over and the season of greed can resume full-tilt. No competitive eating because that would be crossing religious barriers.

At least the people wolfing down hotdogs, as opposed to the art collectors, are eating real meat. Kosher meat, because no one is ethnically excluded from this contest, except of course the vegans. Maybe they’ll be protesting, this July 4th….that is, if there is still a Coney Island…if the Donald Trumps have not bought it out with mega-billions for development so the kids from the Housing Projects will have to crash the beach and risk arrest just for the privilege of looking at the ocean.

Or maybe Christo will come and wrap the whole thing up and then the hedge funds can convince their customers they’re investing in art and pay by the square inch. Because competitive investors will always pay a little more for something they can’t quite understand. Since they raised the MOMA admission price to exclude schmucks like me, crowds are breaking records. And for a few billion dollars, you can get a seat on their board and perpetual free admission. Will it make you more cultured? Doubtful. And when the value of your art portfolio falls into the negative territory it belongs in, maybe you can sell it for enough to afford an inflated hotdog for a newly-homeless vagrant in Coney Island.

Fear of Rap

I am not responsible for the things I write. There is this little voice inside which makes me do things, makes me say things. Writerless, he calls me. Hey, Writerless, check this out.

If you see me on the street, just pass me by. I’m nobody. I’m a victim. We live in this new city of terrorism. For me, some days this is the fear that I’ll open my mouth and Hip-hop will come out. That I’ll stop at Starbucks and instead of ordering a Venti drip no-room, I’ll start rapping like Jay-Z. Or L’il Kim. Big Kim. Bad-rapping. Or Rosie O’Donnell will come out through my mouth. Or I’ll order a mocha skim-latte or one of those designer drinks and I won’t even be able to pay for it. Start saying nasty things about the music, about Dave Matthews and the Bird and the Bee who for some reason make me want to punch someone. Oops.

Some days it is the fear that someone will put up a building. Right in my living room. I’ll protest, make some phone calls, even get on Channel One. But in the end they’ll be
bulldozing right through my living room—I’ll see my copies of Proust and Celine and Henry Miller flying around, spattered with mud, bindings splitting open…and I’ll be hearing the voice, laughing at me. Check it out, Writerless. You’re now Homeless.

Coney Island. An American Institution. Stuff of memories, old movies. They’re going to just rip it down and put up another version. The expensive version. The version without families and sandwiches and brown paper bags and cotton candy and rides on hand-painted roller coasters and heavy metal bumper cars. Designer Nathans, cyber games. No more darts and guns and galleries of moving ducks that creak. This terrifies me.

New York City kids walk around with attitude. They are terrified, too. Any moment the guy next to them can blow up a skyscraper. Can hold them up with a gun or a knife. Maybe they are ordering a slice and some loser with an attitude decides he’s had it. One of their classmates brings an uzzi to school. So they walk around like they don’t give a shit. They do not kiss their mother or say ‘Good Morning’, or ‘May I have a Second Helping? They tell their parents to go fuck themselves when we ask if they have homework. Maybe it is the terror they have shoved inside, they have learned to live with. Not the kind Israeli kids have—the kind that makes them tough, or the Muslim kind—the kind that makes them want to die for their God—but the New York kind—the attitude. And the entitlement. Yeah. So what? Give me some money.

This is not me, it’s Writerless. My own personal terrorism. My Jiminy Cricket that rides around and whispers in my ear. Makes me say things. Occasionally whispers something poetic, wakes me in the night with a song I may sign my name to.

I wonder if all the people with bad grammar have that voice….the people that say I’m not having that good of a time’. I have to catch my little terrorist from opening up my mouth and saying ‘What’s up with the ‘OF’?

The other night after a blues show, some guy comes up to the lead singer and says ‘It ain’t ‘Further on up the Road’, It’s Further on DOWN the Road’. We have learned to let these people have the last word.
I had the honor of meeting some of the blues poets. Many of them couldn’t read or write. It wasn’t what they said but how they said it. No terrorists there. They said what came out and they had a point of view. They knew who they were. They didn’t have Rolexes and Hummers. And they gave credit where credit was due—black or white. John Lee Hooker once remarked, after watching Lassie ‘That dog is smarter than a motherfucker’. I want to see that in my Bartlett’s. Grammar or no grammar.

So if you recognize me on the street, don’t hold me up for my words. They just slip out when I forget to keep my mouth shut tight. Last night a guy called Budweiser Bill came up after our gig and told the harmonica player he was so good OF a harp-blower that compared to him, old Budweiser just ain’t shit.

‘Sure you are’, Writerless blurted out. Terrified, I looked around. And Budweiser, who’d been drinking his name all night, was shaking his head ‘No I ain’t’.

‘Sure you are’, I reassured him. And my guitarist winked at me. He knew who was talking.

Charity Ends at Home

The thing with working nights is, you get familiar with the homeless and transient population of New York. They tend to sleep days, when it’s safe, and keep an eye on their back or their shopping carts, at night. While the city sleeps, they’re working the trains, the platforms, the streets. In Union Square there’s a girl with a dog—looks just pitifully ill, but pulls in more than the average non-union musician in a night. And doesn’t have to buy strings. One of the news channels did a story on another 14th-street girl who looks anorexic and close-to-death. Her legs are gnarled up and crooked; it’s hard not to feel some guilt if you pass without giving her something. But the crew shot her-- 6 AM, after 'work', undercover, skipping around, running her mouth off, laughing, chugging a forty and cursing out some frightened pedestrians like a feisty old pitbull.

When I first moved uptown I got hit up by one of the locals—you know, the one with the boombox who hangs out just south of the Harlem Meer, up on the hill, laughing and singing. He asked me for a twenty. I laughed, gave a buck… and he chewed me out, right there in the street—‘I said a TWENTY, keep your goddamn bill you fuckin cheap white bitch.’ He picks on the rich white kids—threatens to tell their parents he caught them smoking dope if they don’t pay him off. One neighbor had a T-shirt made for him which is now faded and worn. Give me a Twenty and I’ll Leave You Alone for 30 Days, it said. He knows me now, sees me struggling with bags late-nights. Once we crossed paths on a corner; like a street-city-miracle, I looked down and there, right there—was a $5. I could use the five. Kids to feed. I nodded my head. He picked it up; ‘Can’t fuckin believe I missed that one,’ he said. That was my pay-off. He looks out for my son, now… won’t take even a quarter. Not even the night he told me he’d just tested positive for AIDS.

I had my first lesson in charity when I was 10. It came in the form of a huge gallon jug of pennies—years of my Dad’s throw-aways. I was going to put them in rolls, buy a guitar. But there was a blind guy who sat by the IRT on 59th Street--- bobbing his head back and forth day in and day out with this German Shepherd on a blanket, the tin cup thing. I learned about charity at religious school, thought about how blind people weren’t afraid of the dark. So I loaded my little wagon with the huge jug thing and lugged it down to the guy. Here, I said….. and he jabbed in his hand, started moving his head even quicker; his filmy eyes were rolling back and forth. ‘PENNIES?’ he exclaimed…”PENNIES?’ ‘Yes, I said proudly’….’You mean they ain’t no quarters. No dimes or nuthin’?’ ‘Well, I answered, there may be one or two’… ‘One or ‘two? You got to be shittin me!’ And the dog began to growl softly…..’Okay, I said nervously… I’ll take them back’. And he told me to get the fuck out of there… without the jar. I wheeled my empty wagon home with my charity tail between my legs and halfway down the block I could hear him muttering ‘PENNIES! You got to be shittin me! Cheap fuckin white bitch!’ I couldn’t even cry. I couldn’t tell my parents. It was like my first scarlet letter. Branded.


I do my grocery shopping at 3 AM on the Upper West. I am generally the only one using cash. On the nights benefit cards are refilled, the crack addicts are waiting for me, competing with offers of up to $10 discount if I let them swipe my groceries and hand them cash in exchange. Sometimes I feel guilty contributing to their habit; sometimes I’m glad to ease their pain. I give them full value and they curse me out anyway, some nights. No matter how poor I am, how sympathetic, I’m a fucking white bitch.

Last week my teenage son absolutely had to have these new Adidas Megabounce sneakers. He nagged, begged, cursed, yelled, banged the walls. Track, He was joining the track team. Except he was the ONLY ONE without the shoes. Maybe you should do a bake sale, I suggested. A benefit. He cursed me out. His coach was cursing me out, he insisted. The coach that prescribed the shoes. Not the $20 or $50 ones. The $120 ones. Uniform. It’s been so many years since I bought clothing expensive enough to have to pay tax. I’ve learned a thrift shop pair is cheaper than new heels in this neighborhood. For me. But I broke down. Thinking track. Athletic scholarship. His face when he opened the box was great. For about 10 seconds. Next day he wanted a hoodie. It’s going to be weeks until we have meat again. Pray to the God Adidas for a miracle, I say. How did he take this? Not ‘okay’, not ‘sorry’…but under his breath, ‘Fucking white bitch’. Do I slap him, punish him? He’s six foot one. I do not. Merry Christmas.

I had a gig with my blues band last night. Who says white people can’t have the blues. I met Muddy Waters, years ago. I was young. I sat on his lap in the dressing room. He felt like an old tree. I could hear his lyrics last night: ‘I bought my baby a Cadillac.. She said that’s a common gift… I saw my baby drivin down Main Street… And she REFUSE to give me a Lift….’
So you don’t have to be white to be a bitch.

But I must be doing something wrong.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Department of Accountability

Years ago I bought a fairly sophisticated tape recorder at Crazy Eddie’s and let them talk me into a 3-year platinum level service contract which promised a loaner during service period, complete replacement with an upgrade if the thing should prove unrepairable When it broke down after year 2, I discovered that not only was there no replacement model, but no more Crazy Eddie. That guy screaming the guarantees out on TV was an actor. There was no Eddie. No one to complain to but the better business bureau responded that they had filed my letter. Where? Under S for Schmuck? Or P for Poor
Schmuck?

Accountability is something poor schmucks like you and I have to own up to. If I don’t pay my rent, I am out on the sidewalk and my security deposit is credited toward repainting my overpriced apartment for the next victim. If I miss car payments, well, they’ll come and take the car. Except maybe not these days. They’ll offer me a new deal—a better credit card, debt consolidation for the small price of 25 percent interest, compounded weekly, and all I have to do is pay what…$300 a month? And if all else fails—why, I can declare bankruptcy? So what if for 3 years I can’t get a mortgage? I can still get a loan. There are ads on every subway for schmucks like me offering loans for people with bad credit. With terrible credit. All you have to do is pay. They’ll sweep everything under the rug for at least six months for the price of… what… 3 or 4 car payments? Whatever.

People eventually die. Do their kids inherit debt? They do not. Do they inherit money? They do. I want to know where all of this negative balance goes. Is it simply flushed away post-mortem like reverse sewage? Do people go to debtor’s purgatory after they die? Probably not. So where is accountability? What are we teaching them? That once they are dead even the toughest collection agency will throw up their hands? Why pay? Why be a good citizen? Why not stuff the New York City parking meters with aluminum foil the way I see people do every day. Not me. I’m the one who got arrested for using my kid’s school card in the subway even when I didn’t. When I used my own but by mistake had both in my hand. I was accountable for innocence.

I’ve been married twice. Both involved ceremonies, promises. So what happened? In my first marriage one of us was unfaithful. Where is the accountability? He gets a divorce, freedom—exactly what he wanted. Because adults have learned: it is better to move on than to hold someone accountable. Especially in this forgiving and sophisticated society, where if one commits a crime, the punishment is not written but negotiated. For rich people, it seems, the negotiations are more favorable. Why would a rich person steal like some poor bastard? He doesn’t need the money. So let’s have him make a contribution to cancer, sweep a few floors and go home to his penthouse. But a poor schmuck who actually needs something? Like the guy in Les Miserables who stole bread for his family? Let him rot, because he is guilty. Let him be accountable.

The Enron schmucks—they can pass the buck back and forth like those 3-card Monty magicians. Where is the criminal? Under that Golf Cart? This one? In Dubai? In the White House?

What about the president? Impeachment to me sounds like a word that means vacation. Shouldn’t he have to stand trial as a person for all the crap he pulled as President? Why, if he is ever held accountable and this is doubtful, will he be treated like a misbehaving child who will be sent to his room and deprived of allowance but will actually, in this society, get everything he needs anyway. And what would be the use of sending him to prison? How come Martha Stewart looks better than ever, is rich as ever, still mixing batter on TV with the perfect teeth? And what did she do, anyway, that every hedge fund manager and trader doesn’t do nearly every single day? Yeah, you.

How about these poor kids who are coming back from Iraq all disillusioned and wounded and getting the short stick? Who exactly is accountable, George Bush? Yes, you, on TV. For inventing an excuse to invade a country because Dick Cheney needed to boost his stock interests to new records? Because your father told you to? How about the ones that were killed or maimed by ‘friendly fire’? Put down your Su-do-ku and wrap your brain around that one and see if it doesn’t short-circuit every nerve ending in your body.

I want the next President to create a Department of Accountability. I want it to function like an umbrella, the way I believed the Judicial system was once created. I want everyone to have to answer to it. Not like Big Brother, but like real justice. Not a system all mucked up with people suing people because they can make a buck for nothing—lawyers creaming billions off the top of issues like they are heroes while poor schmucks are getting blown up every day, getting buried in mines, dying from inhaling bad chemicals. I used to believe in justice. Maybe that was the Bible, not the US Constitution and I was mixed up.

No wonder when I tell my kids they are accountable for disobeying rules, for copying homework, for text-messaging answers back and forth during exams, they look at me like I am crazy. Who is going to punish them? The school doesn’t want their drop-out statistics to go up, the teachers don’t want to take the time to compare identical papers and are so overworked, by the 180th essay they all sound the same anyway.
So what’s wrong with me? Today our local wino comes up and begs me for a dollar because his kid is starving and do I ask him ‘WHAT kid? No, I don’t. I feel guilty and accountable. I give the guy a dollar. Even when, on the way home, I see him sitting on the curb with a forty and he gives me the finger. And he’s right. I am honoring accountability in a society where it has become an intangible. Just keep printing up the paper money, issue another credit card. The only people who feel accountable are the ones that somehow feel guilty, right? And guilty people are the bad guys. .So I am truly the schmuck. Tomorrow I’ll give my wino a five. Pass all the bucks. That way when my kids hit me up I’ll be cleaned out and I can point. Go ask the guy on the curb with the colt 45… or better yet, take it to the Department of Accountability in the Unforeseeable Future.