Monday, March 19, 2012

Hoop Dreams

Yesterday an elderly man with a cane and a disability tripped and fell down in the middle of a street. The light was flashing that countdown thing they do now, and his frail wife was screaming and trying desperately to get him up. A young Superman rushed from the sidewalk while I and several pedestrians waved wildly to stop traffic, managed to get the man upright onto his medical-type shoe apparatus, and he made it awkwardly to the sidewalk. He was miraculously okay--- but shaken; his wife on the other hand was crouching and breathing heavily, wiping her brow histrionically and scolding him. 'Take a minute', I urged ... 'just breathe and thank God for the blessing of the near-miss.' He looked up at me with the kind eyes my father reserves for strangers, and I recognized it. He had his equilibrium. His wife, on the other hand, had 'seen' death; she would be the one left to suffer the unbearable loneliness of old age and was not so easily consoled.

Having conversed with angels and carried Jesus in my pocket, I still find myself at the edge of prayer for the losing team at the free-throw line, asking God for favors while waiting for the downtown 6, wearing my faith on a necklace, looking for saints on city sidewalks. I am well aware on the other hand that guitar gods who move the ground beneath me can be schmucks and losers. That the frail beauty of my pale willowy neighbor translates into a screaming harpy nag when her boyfriend fails to bring home the right bottle of olive oil. That the guy who played Christ in the movies with such credibility was a wife-beater. That the penetrating sax solo with reverb at the tail of a shivery ballad may be seasoned with cocaine and alcohol. So what if the guy is a cheating belligerent asshole-- I can still worship the melody. It is a kind of faith that survives my middle-aged cynicism. Fuck the singer (while, of course, how many of us have done so?); it's the song that we take with us, in the end.

I watch the NCAA tournament with great affection, every year, fill out my brackets with attention and faithfully watch the early rounds where I generally see my CInderella dream teams trampled. I bite my nails and cross myself while boys who played alongside my son put their hearts on the court and shoot their dreams for maybe the last time in front of a massive audience. This is 'it'. For me, it is the last year I will even know any of these players; my son is outgrowing the generation. Maybe next year it won't feel so important; maybe it will just be a fantasy game and not a prayer. I will be a spectator, not a mother. An observer, not a believer. I can't help waiting for a magical moment, for the shot to go in, or go out, or rebound off some unlikely corner, for a player to suspend just long enough to float a ball in, to get the hometown hero welcome, whatever tragedy or joy the rest of his life may hold.

I had 4 college players sleeping in my house last week. Their feet hung off our sofas, and we had to build up pillow-extensions for their mattresses. They were hungry and they were grateful for the home stay. They were soft-spoken and polite and communicated with few words and a kind of rhythmic telepathic physical ease. I didn't get to know them. My son tells me the stories-- the personal struggles, the underdogs and late-bloomers, the brothers and sisters and mothers with cancer, the fathers who are wounded vets, the orphans and foster kids, the immigrants who 3 short years prior couldn't speak a word of English or knew what a shot-clock was. I love this--- the unpaid kids with the expensive sneakers and the sometimes badly-chosen school colors who have not much future but a present so filled with excitement it will weight their past forever. This is 'it'. The 2 weeks of games, the 40 minutes of tension and thrill and heartbreak which make March mad crazy for some of us. Women, kids, poor, rich-- you don't even need cable. Our president is in on it. Wall Street. Las Vegas. The New York Times and Yahoo. Office pools. Sports for so many is the American religion. Why else are so many teams named 'Saints', Angels, Devils, Lions, fantastic heroic things. Symbols. The innocence of boys running and playing ball, no apparatus, no padding-- just man to man. God loves basketball. I feel this. At least he loves the multicolored NCAA boys, before they get contracts and begin the rat-race of money and trades and politics and power.

I have had to defend myself many times this week--- especially among my musician peers who dis and belittle my March madness. Who try to poison my enthusiasm with tales of bribes and money and capitalist corruption and payoffs and cheating and lies. But I believe in basketball. I believe in boys-to-men. The players, the sweat and tears and disappointment and elation and the aggression and the grace. Bless these boys-- the winners and losers and the wounded and injured. They are the sons of America and the idols of our kids. And next year, except the names, we will forget all about them. One or two will be sitting on an NBA bench, some of them will be soldiers, some will be coaching their successors or teaching or in bars telling their game-losing or game-winning shot story to an apathetic drunk ear. Sure you were, the guy may be thinking.

Last night I came uptown at 4 AM. In my car a long man was sleeping; he spanned 6 seats. He wore a Michigan State hoodie and his size-14 Nikes were neatly paired and trustingly unlaced on the floor in front of him. A comb was stuck in his hair, 70's style; his beard was going grey. As the train stalled in the tunnel, waiting for the late-night track congestion to clear, he let out a whooping kind of sigh--- a long exhalation of awe like he had just made a basket from 28 feet at the buzzer. In his sleep he was smiling-- maybe the only smile on the car. Maybe he was just tall, never made a hoop in his life, never stayed at anyone's house in the early nights of the tournament. Anyway, I acknowledged the points, feeling already the letdown of April post-game calm, upcoming Commencement for my son, the end of the 3-point innocence.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

West Side Story (read over Azealia Banks 212 soundtrack)

I went to hear some jazz tonight--- intelligent, subtle white unamplified tiny supper-club jazz. I liked it. I even loved it. I went with a couple of research doctors and a guy celebrating the publication of his 5th novel the mediocrity of which is so predictable that it's hard to find anything but irony to celebrate. Still, rather than having to write about Rush Limbaugh or the goddam MTA again, I went, I congratulated with zero bitterness. I am just in retrospect so happy I never slept with the guy when he was young and hot, or had to hide his cryptic ink dedication because all his gifted volumes are long ago donated to Housing Works and maybe keeping some homeless guy warm in a trashcan fire. I excused myself, complimented the musicians, kissed the writer, said I had a late session... it was good to walk up Sixth Ave. and smell the pizza and Halal food and marijuana, see the street cats combing their hair in the parked car mirrors.

Maybe the change started at the West 4th Street station. One of the doctors insisted on walking me. Trains so messed up these nights, it's like an extra subsidy for subway performers. You can almost get a whole set in before the next uptown or downtown. Platforms are packed. A guy with a whole trap kit tonight-- electronic drums, synth tracks synched up, sampled vocals, whacking it out-- and after every tune getting off the kit, and walking it off to real applause, not the polite jazz kind. Catcalls and whoops and 2-fingered whistles. Jacked up, he is--pumped and wired...and the music kind of funky trip-hoppy but solid grooving...louder, now...me with just enough free merlot in my veins to shake it a little... and 'Isn't New York wonderful', my scientist asks, slightly embarrassed. Not so many white people waiting on the A platform at 2 AM.... people are taking their coats off and showing what they got, kids break-dancing old-style, guys with the Azealia Banks Mickey Mouse hoodie... now I am letting go a little... a young black couple next to me is egging me on. My date is clearly talking to himself, trying to force a smile, looking at his phone, trying to offer a cab instead...nothin' doing for me. I am coming off of my intellectual jazz high, grooving with my old self.

I switch to the uptown 4....alone now, with the young couples, the older couples, the packs and wilders, the rich and poor and the tired. A cute nerdy pair next 2 me, entwined, talking about their courses, she lovely and disheveled, he grungy and smelly, going home to have collegiate sex on their mattress. A trendy gay couple---he with skinny orange pants, he with a leather cap and mascara, face to face, centimeters apart, talking, hardly moving their lips. A late-40's couple, she wearing too much make-up, russet hair heavy, sleeping on his shoulder, ringless; he with a ring, looking vague and drawn and burdened. Not talking. By the door, a tall blonde--- the Frederic Fekkai hair my son's girlfriends used to have--- black Prada glasses-- the real kind-- to set off her pale skin; a tiny Chanel purse, tight jeans. Uggs, one foot bent like a young horse, leaning up against a light-skinned guy from the hood--- a gang alumni--- my doorman taught me how to identify these guys... he with his fitted hat backward and just so, his sideburns sculpted to a point-- clean, his jeans and Tims.. you can feel his muscles. She's carrying her I Love Pink bag--the one with the letters in pink leopard-- a present from him, no doubt. He's got her with his strong thick fingers just barely touching, in case the train swerves, he is there. Holding her arms in the middle-- just there, the way he does when he has her up against his door, from the inside, because they can't wait. She turns and I maybe recognize her, from the UES. My niece likes these guys, too, she likes to party in the 'hood, give her parents a little heart attack.
So I am waiting for them to get off at 86th, 96th--- where she will take him to her Park Avenue pink bedroom-- her parents at their weekend house. But no, they stay on. She is going all the way to the Bronx. I like this girl now. She will soon know there is nothing like the tenderness of a gangsta thug, when they want it that way. Nothing. It is all about the protection her Daddy's cash will never give her. He shifts as people get out, moves her slightly, and his left hand grazes her butt. Her face is up close to his chin, breathing his scent. So clean, these guys are. They have their own soundtrack. She craves the music. It taught her how. They share this. The drugs, maybe. He will teach her other things....show her, because he is strong and hardly speaks. Purrs like a lion king when they do it. With him she doesn't ever feel fat or not good enough. She is a goddess. He will handle her that way, and she will be wrecked. His hands frame her, measure her, without touching. She is the train rocking, aching for him, staring at their silhouette in the train glass. It doesn't get better. Ever. His eyes empty, lids heavy with his passion, purple-grey circles underneath. He will have had 2 or 3 kids before he's 21, tattoos and scars. He needs her. He will not let her fall. It will be like this-- -for weeks, maybe months. Then he will get sick of watching the Kardashians and her silliness. She will begin to smell like his cigarettes. One day he will be tough with her--- just a little. It will frighten her, she will love him more. He will feel trapped. He wants to go out on his own one Saturday. She will whine and argue, threaten. She may even leave and he may even care, for a minute. She will text and text but he is tough. He will not answer. Her parents scold, take her to the shrink, give her antidepressants. None of this will help. Time, maybe... a little. But she is ruined. Once you go Bronx, it's hard to come back down.

I have to get out. He refuses to look at me, with his hooded eyes, as I get off, remembering how good it was for me, in my time-- 2 of us always alone, on a T-shirt on the sand, in a car, on a filthy wood floor-- the cigarettes, the sacrifice, the silent cool. I know now he had no interest in who I was--- only what I was, the symbol of my body and my shoes and my clothes and my hair, and the inside of me that obsessed him like a mad dog. He died, my thug... the only acceptable ending there is, because there is no ending that is happy. Souvenir this night, I want to say, but knowing she won't, she will have to keep returning and returning until her heart is an unidentifiable charred mess and she will quietly long for this train ride with all she becomes. She will feel for his chain around her neck long after she has thrown it at him while he stands stone-like, and she will quietly resent her future husband for his niceness and his manners and the way he holds the door for her instead of pressing her up against it.