Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Miscarriage of Justice

You reach a point in your life where procrastination becomes chronic. You can let it progress until it’s terminal, or you can get sick-to-death of slogging around in a psychological swamp and hoist yourself onto the grassy shore of mental rehab. I began seeing all these piling annoyances like rodents running around at night. Taking up space they don’t pay for— disturbing your sleep. You lie there…listening for the suckers, resenting their sneaky freedom while you are stuck thinking about how they are slipping inside your raisin bran box and leaving one or two designer droppings you will mindlessly crunch with your morning fiber.

So when I got called for Jury Duty, unlike many of my friends who would prefer a jail sentence and consider hiring a lawyer to exempt them, I simply went down to 111 Centre on the prescribed date. Times have changed since the last time I served. The security at the door was slightly less thorough than many of the ghetto highschools I visit for my son’s basketball games. There was a movie on several HD screens. Okay, the screen was distorted and snowy, like the films they showed you in the 70’s. It was narrated by Ed Bradley, may he rest in peace, and had dramatic recreations of medieval torture and barbaric trial rituals—maybe the same old footage, but at least the juror-actors didn’t have Farrah Fawcett hair or 70’s Fros. And it was brief.

The orientator/head-clerk in the room was funny. Like doing a Dave Chapelle. I laughed out loud and noticed a couple of young hipsters giving me a dirty look. I’m someone’s mother now. I’m lame. I laugh at lame jokes. The last time I served, I ended up with a sackful of phone numbers—guys and fellow jurors hitting on the young woman dressed in black. Now girls in their twenties and thirties were asking me to watch their things while they went out to talk on their cell. I look honest, middle-aged. Safe.

The trick of jury duty is to avoid at all costs actual selection for a trial. Not overtly, because lawyers and judges can smell a jury-duty shirker. They hang you for it. They know you are smart, have a life. That you’d be nuts to actually want to be selected. So this makes you a prime candidate. But you find subtle ways to communicate some kind of innate prejudice against the case. Like the first one I got called for—a guy who had his arm cut off. Obviously a musician would find this slightly more devastating than, say…well, I can’t say. I was nailed. Nearly. It was obviously a long trial and in the end my self-employed status made this a hardship. That and the fact that the state would have to spring for every single day as opposed to a corporate payroll.

But the second one—a simple negligence suit—a guy who fell and broke his foot on the subway stairs. A guy who I assume is black, because although his lawyer is white and corporate, the defense attorney, for the MTA, is black and cool. And it seems also that it is not just a foot thing, but the guy had been a convicted criminal. Someone who cost the state plenty—trials, jailtime, parole, rehab, etc. And now, the guy falls and sticks it again to the city. Anyone have a problem with this? Yeah, me, I don’t say. I don’t write it on the questionnaire because there is no space... but suddenly I remember—16 years ago…I was pregnant, riding the 6 train, when there is some kind of collision…and I wake up on a hospital gurney, with a sonogram monitor screen showing a baby’s heartbeat …also a bit of fluid or blood. But I have a kid to pick up at nursery school.. oh my god…I am at St. Vincent’s and it’s nearly 3 PM…and a gig. And I get up and run out, against their protests…and I have a bumped head, but pretty okay… and there is the tiniest bloodstain in my underwear that night in the CBGB’s bathroom, but I am pretty okay. And 3 warm months later, when I go into slightly early labor, I am trying to deny the fact that this baby girl who had been amnio-okayed…has not been moving the way she had before the 6-train day, and when the doctor tells me with his arm on my shoulder—awkward professional tenderness—that there is no heartbeat and I must push out a lifeless newborn… I don’t look---I don’t want to see. I am numb and get up and go home with afterbirth unbearable soreness and emptiness, and I have signed away all tiny organs for transplant and usable parts for stemcell research. Yes, she will save other newborns, with her perfect kidneys and heart and liver.

And my friends try to talk me into a funeral but I can’t. I can’t make her real. It would hurt too much. I let her go. I convinced myself that somehow she was wrecked in that subway incident and God or the angels spared her the agony of a disabled life. I believed that. I didn’t blame the goddam MTA. Or the hospital. I didn’t sue. I didn’t even think, until this jury selection, about fault... about sticking it to the city I loved, the trains that take me back and forth to gigs cheap, without the nauseating braking and screeching of midtown rush-hours, without the meter ticking away half your pay.

And while the two attorneys are going around the room asking us about prejudices, about whether we fear a fare increase if the judge finds the MTA must pay out a massive sum to this guy who might even have been drunk and whose well-suited lawyer will make a small fortune convincing us all that the stair was malformed, that it was slick, untended…making us feel guilty if we have any prejudice at all against a guy who mugged several people and robbed a few homes who will now be awarded enough to buy himself a hummer and a rolex. And I am wondering if I am having racist thoughts but thinking also somehow I must defend the soul of my unborn subway angel whose tiny spirit found its way to heaven in the midst of those deep tunnels while I lay unconscious and innocent beneath my fellow passengers whose future babies might have been saved by falling on my large stomach and heavy coat, or by the tiny perfect organs of my lost baby girl.

I am dismissed, end of day two. Honorably discharged for 4 more years with a voucher for $80 in my pocket, 2 telephone numbers, and the sad conviction that perhaps no justice will be served in that courthouse.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Celebrity Conspiracy

I have these friends…we all do, we former punks and hippies…the ones that think everything is a conspiracy, currently that the 15,000 billionaires in the US want to basically eradicate those of us who don’t function solely to enhance their lives. That the economy is essentially going to collapse, leaving our pension funds and social security bankrupt, while these guys have cashed out all the monopoly money that never really existed, but there it is now, the profits made on all the Enrons of our era—in their fat safe bank accounts and wallets. That the IRS is an anti-constitutional invention, that the Federal Reserve is corrupt, that anyone who speaks out and attempts to tell the dirty truth will be taken out and shot or thrown into some kind of cyber-dungeon.

Some of these people believe not only that Kennedy was killed because he had too much power, as were Martin Luther King, John Lennon; but ditto Buddy Holly, Otis Redding…Stevie Ray… inside-industry murders that today are done Tupac-style. That Eric Clapton’s baby was thrown out of that window to insure he would cooperate with the bastards who cream the money out of the music business which today is shipwrecked and relegated to whoever gets the most myspace hits.

That the entire entertainment sector— the increasingly addicting and reality-based subjects of gaming, the epidemic mediocrity of television and cinema…is all part of this conspiracy to numb our flaccid American minds into a stupor from which it will be difficult to object, criticize or even exercise our right to vote because we must actually get up and go out and maybe miss an inning or a realtime episode of Celebrity Rehab.

Which brings me to yet another landmark in what seems the hell-bent determination of the television industry to bring us yet further down this pathway of irremediable cotton-brain. It is not enough that we must set before our growing children the super-model competitions where girls who have regularly eaten fewer calories than a Chihuahua are told that they are fat, where America’s ‘spokesmodels’ are not intelligent girls with goals, but real-life airbrushed versions of two-dimensional beauty-ads. It is not enough that the athletes of our generation are now chemically enhanced, and wearing and driving their success in the form of obscenely priced goods which individually could feed the population of Rwanda for a year. And the media constantly shows us their young mistakes— their arrests, their speeding tickets, their weakness for drama. Now we learn half the sports are tampered-with. The refs are corrupt, the games are fixed. Why not? Everything else is. And we are still watching. Still betting, still worshipping.

But now we have to peer through our screens into a Pasadena houseful of these people who are maybe so deeply in debt that they are forced to parade their addictions in a rehab facility. Where the staff social workers are better looking than the average Desperate Housewife. Camera-ready. So who are the actors? The token athlete…the rockstar? Is this real? Is the vomiting real? What if they miss a ‘take’? How is it they manage to edit the episodes into a perfect hour with breaks for commercials? Is this another mutation of voyeurism? Was ‘Intervention’ not enough for those of us with an addictive need to watch others’ ruined lives bottoming while sitting on sofas popping open cans of beer and washing down Xanax and Zoloft? Is this supposed to help us?

I tried to get a friend to go to rehab last year. He is drinking himself into inactivity and depression. I found that these rehab places charge more than the average American family earns, for one month. And you know those Crossroad benefit concerts? Eric Clapton? His place charged more than any of the others. Rent in Antigua has to be lower than New York City. Where are all those millions you raised going, Eric? Because the person I spoke with wouldn’t give us a break and didn’t want to even speak unless we had a $15,000 downpayment and a roundtrip ticket. But I don’t think this guy would look good on camera. Funny…they didn’t televise the auditions for this show. That would have been some entertainment.

I guess Brigitte Neilsen’s addictions have been massive, because this is like the 30th degrading reality show she’s appeared on in 3 years. But I have to say she may be the only real person there. She is maternal and sympathetic and unretouched. Then again, she is European. Nobility and flesh. We’re talking American here. Botox and plastic; hairweaves and collagen. And that Dr. Drew is the most annoying self-promoting talking head fake since Imus. And seems about as human as a robot. Personally I’d want advice from someone with experience. Not the kind you get sharing a joint at a fraternity party. Someone who’d used a department-store pin to pop open a vein. Someone who’d puked in public, someone with unflattering mugshots and true humiliation.

Perhaps the toughest question these inmates must grapple with: is rehabilitated life going to be so much better for people who maybe have lost the ability to have fun or to create, who will have to look in a real mirror at the damage they have done in an industry where looks are everything and human value no longer counts? Where they may have to face lung cancer or car accidents or debt. And what about the rest of us? Those who slaved away socking away pensions which may now be disappearing because of the excessive greed of banks and mortgage brokers? What will a 'clean' retirement feel like on welfare? What were our rewards? Makes you think. I may have a clear conscience but is there a gold pot for being a responsible parent and working hard to remain debt-free? Maybe I should have been smoking crack and partying. At least these people are earning enough on VH-1 to afford plastic surgery. A house. And there will be residuals.

I’m backing myself into a corner here. I’d meant to talk about elections and the 9/11 hangover. I’ve been sidetracked. Diluted. Diverted. But wasn’t that the point?

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Sympathy Vote

For about a month now, this homeless lady has been sleeping in our vestibule. She somehow has sussed out that when the doorman-for-show leaves at 10 PM, my building turns back into the funky pumpkin it is, was and always will be, and the homeless lady slumps in the heated little entry rectangle with her stack of suitcases-on-wheels, like a living urban lawn-jockey reminder.

The first couple of nights I asked her if she was waiting for someone. She made me feel like I was copping some superior attitude and was letting her know I belonged and she didn’t. She told me she was waiting for a bus which was maybe a plausible 3 on a scale of 10. The crosstown as I well know comes every 40 minutes in overnight hours and on frigid winter nights I am often forced to log some time in the all-night deli on Broadway comparing phone cards. Okay. Maybe she’s got some strange overnight job in a yarn shop or pet store. Kind of the cat-hoarding vibe, actually. Definitely a closet knitter.

But on the second night she was obviously napping. I offered her a bagel and she snapped out a negative. Where did I get off, anyway, patronizing, giving her a hard time? I don’t own the frigging place. Oh, but I do…at least a tiny piece of it…But not the piece she’s sleeping in, her attitude implied. Besides, I have sympathy for the homeless…especially this middle-aged woman in black with the hat and red 70’s style glasses who by night #3 is definitely giving off the subtle smell of the minimally washed. That could be me, I always think… the ‘there but for fortune’ thing. Especially in these ominous economic times where not only am I circumstantially living beyond normal means but in line to lose some of the meager opportunities we musicians never take for granted.

I did the laundry last night, and at 5 AM I went down to check. There she was, slumped over on the radiator. Our badly dressed sentinel. The night watchman. Should I rat her out? Maybe she is an angel. For this possibility alone, I’d never disturb her. Not me. Too sympathetic. The stray dog lover. The sucker who puts a coin in the cup of every con-artist with an arm out. Superstitious, I am. Lucky, in my way.

But the last few days have sucked. My bathtub is leaking into the apartment below. The zipper on my favorite jeans is broken. I have laryngitis and a brand new raging toothache in a back molar. My unbreakable titanium glasses I splurged on snapped in half at the bridge. My guitarist cancelled 2 gigs and having a qualified plumber look at the bathroom is out of the question.

So maybe this woman is like some kind of gnarly, bad-spirited presence. A street-level gargoyle with an evil eye. Maybe no one else can see her. My son saw her, though. He doesn’t have sympathy. In fact he doesn’t have any feelings except hunger and anger. He doesn’t care that Hillary Clinton cried, even though it made me feel a little better. Oprah cries, too, he informed me. Apparently women in his world are like those Betsy-Wetsy dolls we had when I was a kid. You turn them over and they cry. Or they wet. Tears have about the same rationale. The same effect on him.

He has no sympathy for the rich people beneath us because despite my pleas, he took a shower just as usual and caused more of their ceiling to cave in. Of course, they have insurance, but that won’t stop them from sending me a bill for $20,000 to repair their gilded moldings or whatever was damaged, even though they are planning a massive renovation anyway. They have sympathy only for other rich people. My son will have no sympathy for me when they serve me with this lawsuit. He will curse my cooking and the thinness of his hamburger because my food budget is eroding and prices are going up.

I hope Hillary will reward her voters and have sympathy for the struggling Americans. I hope she will have sympathy for those children of Darfur who lack the strength to play or blink. I hope she will have less sympathy for the drug company lobbyists and the healthcare companies who have no sympathy for the sick. I hope she will have no sympathy for the Bear-Stearns fixed equity sub-prime mortgage lender who has no sympathy for the homeless and will have them removed when he finds that one of them has been sleeping in his vestibule where they might leave a bedbug or germ which could contaminate his perfect children on the way to private school.

Before I go to bed tonight I’m going to try to leave an offering for Our Lady of the Vestibule. Just in case. I'll be very careful and not wake her. Something subtle, like bread or a flower. For luck. For sympathy. Maybe a Vote Obama button, pinned onto a scarf. I wonder if she’ll vote. I wonder if she had kids like mine who don’t write her or worry or thank her for all the diaper changes. A husband she nursed to his death along with all her resources. A breast cancer diagnosis. Forget my bathroom and the zipper, the taped-up glasses, the root canal and the empty wallet. I am a Democrat. From me, she has the sympathy vote. Hillary will understand.

Friday, January 4, 2008

January is the Cruellest Month

Another bloody year. Literally so, in some countries. Here, besides a few celebratory murders, not much violence marked the transition. Now we are bleeding into day 4, and the same pre-new-year depressed friends are equally post-depressed on my answering-machine.

My son is applying to college which seems to me some kind of virtual occupation. Forms filled out online, the importance suddenly of being earnest on the internet where most teenage profiles are somewhere between fantasy, irony and blatant lies. We read in US news and World Report that due to the herd-nature of the Baby Boomers, there is the largest pool of college applications for fall, 2008. What was going on in 1990 besides Kurt Cobain emerging that prompted these people to behave like adults and reproduce?
I can’t remember. I’m losing pre-natal recall.

No wonder my friends are depressed. If they’re not facing massive college bills, they forgot to have children and the mirror reminds them that at this age their own grandparents were pulling up stakes. Some of them spent long teenage and adult hours learning to play guitar…practicing, playing in thousands of bands, listening to records, studying. Trying to make it, sometimes making it; going to rehab, moving in and out of relationships; failing to succeed, succeeding at failure. Failing at failure. I like that one.

We had no heat last night and for some reason I had the illusion that the TV would provide some kind of warmth. I sat with a blanket too cold to look for the remote and saw some late-night rerun where the host was playing Guitar Hero. The game. Which is realer than real, and maybe gives the gamer the same rush some rockstar gets when he pulls off a massive hot solo onstage. I am afraid to test this out. In fact, for a parent with apparent manual dexterity, I never mastered any version of Nintendo or Playstation. I retired at Space Invaders.

But it makes you think. Not just Guitar Hero…there is the Band of Brothers game now. My old Dad had to drop out of a plane with a parachute, get blasted by shrapnel and gunfire, suffer permanent hip-damage and post-traumatic stress. Now there is the virtual version. I wonder if it pisses him off. I don’t ask, because anything I ask pisses him off. We had it too easy, we post-war children who went to college. We were allowed to use our brains. Some of us write books, wrote for television. I can’t imagine writing lines for a talk-show host who is playing a virtual game on television. I can’t imagine who invents the Band of Brothers game when there are actual veterans still living. But there are terrorist games that allow you to virtually experience driving a plane into one of two populated glass-walled towers.

As my son presses ‘Submit’ for one of the colleges of his choice, I wonder how they are processing his virtual application for a future. He found these colleges on an online list. His girlfriend didn’t even know Indiana was a state, even though there is a minted quarter to prove it. I remember my college choice was based on some blonde boy who fed me peyote in Mexico. I wanted to go where he was.

At this point, war to my son is a movie, music is a computer game, college is the recipient of an online form. Tonight he watched the Knicks rather than the Iowa caucus results. At his age I was working for my candidate, despite the fact that I couldn’t vote for 3 more years. College was the Emerald City, life was Oz.

My son wants to make money. Cramer-money. College is a game with real money as reward. At least I think so. The internet is free, but these applications are pricey. Up to $85 to press ‘Send’. No pictures. This is not only not required but not permissible. Bad people misuse things like this on the internet. Bad people misuse things that are real; they misuse people that dream. This depresses my depressed friends. Not so my son. He watches films like ‘Hostel 2’ without flinching.

I watched Barak Obama speaking in Iowa. My son sent a virtual application to that state. For a minute, I felt as though I was in a time warp, as though the things that came out of this politician’s mouth were not rhetoric but real. As my son dried himself off by the TV, he asked me ’He’s good, isn’t he?’ I think so, I answered. But then I realized he thought this was maybe a film, that Obama was an actor…after all, some of the candidates are actors….some of them were our mayor, who is also a character in the 9/11 simulated virtual game. It is hard to tell the game from life. It’s hard to distinguish gospel from bullshit on the internet; it’s all in hypertext. How these colleges can designate their future class from the virtual pool is beyond my grasp. And how these kids with the right to vote are processing the choice of candidates is also a mystery ..Is it another online game? More SAT-worthy multiple choice? At least they must go to the polls. Or not.

For Christmas this year a friend put our old family-movie footage onto dvd. It was a great gift. ‘Nothing is reel’, the card said. Somewhere, I was. As my son will be or will not be, in Indiana or Iowa or Arizona. As our next president will have been one of these candidates. Or not. I personally believe in Iowa.