Friday, April 23, 2010

When

My neighbor is an editor of great renown. Not just an editor but a reader, a self-confessed failed writer who succeeded in promoting a genuine literary style-- a man of knowledge and ear. He passed on to me several recent novels short-listed for some literary awards which I found so annoyingly mediocre that I was compelled to huff and puff in protest on his answering machine... as though he didn't know. Maybe he was just checking to make sure I hadn't gone soft over the winter.

I've lapsed my subscription to the New Yorker, despite their offering me free T-shirts and mugs. Not much in print seems really worth the effort except this Art Pepper autobiography which is maybe the most real, most honest and most literary self-portrait I've read in ages. Cuts to the chase. Killing and true. That was a time when guys could play, really play. When owning an instrument had a meaning. Talking about it-- straight up. Mainline writing.

New York State requires a nominal amount of skill before it issues a drivers license; not so with musical instruments. Guys in the subways, on the subways, in clubs, bars... everywhere... amplifying their mediocrity for everyone to hear-- or at least the remaining few who don't have our ears preoccupied with i-music. American i-dol....don't get me started. The annual Ken and Barbie awards for music.

Everything seems to fall short these days. It can't be me...I'm old but I've got ears, I've got passion... I can fall in love with Bolano and Saramago and empathize with poor Nabokov whose pre-posthumous ramblings have been published in the form of a novelty-book of punchable index card notes. Cute. And what is really pathetic is that the one or two brilliant sentences in the unwieldy volume of fragments and medicated free-associations are actually worth the price, as compared to all these review-ready novels which seem in endless supply. They belong, as I see it, all too well on the short-list, meaning they fall short of literature. Maybe there is just so much out there.. the facebook comments, the tweets and blogs and texts... who has time for a deep read...? The jacket blurb on a review copy I received recently had not one but two blatant misspellings. Who's even paying attention? Looking? Listening?

I passed a typical mother earlier on Madison Ave. yakking on her phone while her perfectly dressed and accessorized little Asian daughter was staring up at her, saying over and over... Mommy, I love you...in a soft voice, and her mother was booking a yoga class, arguing about the rate. I bit my lip a little... I'm still not quite rid of the maternal weakness. Further uptown at that very moment some father left his 8-month-old baby inside a parked car while he picked up takeout and a few beers... and he came back to find the baby dead. Asphyxiated. A Jamaican nanny was walking down the street holding an infant under her arm, wheeling the stroller, drinking a latte and talking on her phone. Careless? Maybe. The Jamaican woman raised 8 of her own, maybe--- some good ones, some bad ones....she's not worrying that some tubercular human will cough on her employer's baby, or that diaper rash will turn into a staph infection, or a brain tumor.

In the 8th grade my first man-crush was on my English teacher-- a macho guy named McCluskey who told us if we couldn't figure out the 'theme' of a book for an essay test, just put down 'You can't be too careful.' That just about sums up every single messed-up situation in life, he said. We all laughed. He was like a Salinger-esque character in my life-- the kind I never seem to meet anymore. I wonder if that father who forgot his baby learned this lesson. I wonder if he'll get charged with manslaughter or criminal negligence or if they'll just let guilt and remorse eat his heart out. I wonder if he ate the takeout, or drank the beer.

My own son had a court hearing Wednesday. I'm trying to let him handle his own affairs... not to enable him. I wonder if he tells his friends what a negligent parent he has... doesn't send him money, doesn't help him out. All those diapers... those feverish nights... the long sweaty relentless afternoons in the park, hot steamy dinners with no air conditioning... no child support, no baby sitter...I listened when we walked together down the street--- I hung on his every word, paid attention to every symptom, tied every shoelace, secretly followed him to the school door even when he was taller than I was.

Maybe I was too careful. Maybe I worried and cared for every little thing. Maybe the responsibility of being the object of such devotion was just too much. Cheating on exams, cutting class, glib lying, the glamour of clubbing and gambling underage were just mesmerizing compared to boring human values and maternal guilt. Maybe I was too literal... maybe I read too carefully between the lines, expected to get some spiritual nutrition from literature, some passion with my music, some grammatically correct entertainment from my television, and something else from things that use the word 'art' with such casual brutality. A phone call from my own son...occasionally.

Of course, we don't want our kids to be neurotic. We don't want them to cry at Nike commercials and smother their own offspring with anxiety and worry. They have medication for such things. Tears are a sign of instability. Do any of these Goldman Sachs guys cry in their Hamptons retreats when the lights go out? I don't think so. They go to Green Day Broadway shows and let other people yell scripted Hollywood versions of punk. They ignore scruples and ethics and fear poverty. They give at the office only. They spend 6 figures on blown-up C-prints of poor people and old cars and nostalgia which they buy in galleries and which, in the guise of expensive art on their walls, reminds them occasionally of life. Behind a frame.

I didn't take enough pictures. I thought life was for living, not for archiving. I'm no longer sure what is real. Last night the bartender in the club I played was pouring a triple scotch for a disshevelled guy. Say 'when;, the bartender urged.... Say 'When', as he filled the glass with a double night's worth of anesthesia. Must be my eyes, the customer said to me. I got bad eyes. I can't see When.

I wonder what my editor-friend would make of that sentence.

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