Saturday, October 26, 2013

Kind of a Drag


I’ve been reading this book called ‘I am not Stiller’-- one of those stiff yellowing 1960’s paperbacks one hopes to find at a thrift shop for 50 cents  which have enough literary nourishment to sustain you until the next ‘discovery’.  This one is especially entertaining— smart, ironic, edgy, cruel, confessional, brutally blunt and oddly charming the way only a failed modernist existential self-deceiving Swiss narcissist narrator can be.  A six-hundred-page denial.

Anyway, I have this adopted stepmother who is perhaps Stiller's contemporary--- perhaps could have been his lover.  She is the embodiment of everything I would have wanted in a parent-- passion, honesty, intelligence, the conviction that art supersedes morality, that superiority is not inherent but must be earned.  Dessert first, if you like it that way; sex before love,  etc.  Swiss. 

She is now 94 and slightly less generous with her wisdom; appropriately grouchy.  Twenty years ago she commented during one of our Chelsea gallery tours ‘It’s so depressing; no one wants to fuck me.” Twenty years later, things have not improved.    Her ex-lover just told me she’s been lying about her age--- that she’s actually 96.   She has her vanities. 

Her great tragic flaw, besides the fact that she feels greatly under-acknowledged as an artist,  was her nearly fatal attraction for the man who claims to know her real age—a writer of some renown, notorious for massive sexual appetites and an impressive list of conquests.  And while she is pretty tough and equally tough on me, the fact that she describes this period of her life as ‘sheer agony’ brings me again and again to the Pandora’s box of her memories.   Some days she opens it, to my Gothic delight.

Coincidentally, this man who is either 17 or 19 years younger than my stepmother, is my neighbor.  Of course when I first moved in, with my adorable little boy and my black leather attitude,  he showered me with cryptic aphoristic postcards and invitations.  I am now, so many years later, precisely the age my stepmother was when she began the affair (give or take 2 years).  He had been married then—and most of their trysts were conventionally lunchtime, daylight episodes.   Her cold Swiss intelligence and her exquisite ex-husband tempted him.  But she began taking his famous writing class-- maybe just to sit at his feet, and because really he is at his sexual best at a podium.  You can almost hear hearts beating.  At the only lecture I attended as a guest,  I could feel his lovers envied me.  I was, he assumed, his future... but it was not to be.

According to her stories, he was cruel.  Insatiable as a lover, which is hard for a woman... it is his ultimate pleasure we crave, and this was beyond reach.  He was unfaithful even while they were going at it... and his writer's ear was relentless and searching for the kind of genius which always evades one.
To me, his heart was soft--- he was appreciative and sweet and kind and generous.  He piled wonderful books on our doorstep, and even tried to publish my middling poems.  He sent us food, lovely notes and quotations, even befriended my building staff.

But my stepmother continued to humiliate herself through the painful long seminars year after year,  continued to pay absurd tuition to turn in mediocre samples of post-Modern writing which tried for cruelty and only achieved the bitter tone of a desperate lover trying to feign non-chalance.   He slept with nearly every single student, in various combinations and sexual fictions.  She even tried a facelift--- very out-of-character-- but the more she carried on her version of the 1001 Nights, the less he considered her as a lover.

I once loved a boxer--- or thought I did.  I admired his grace, his intense focused force, the way he laced his gloves, the way he ran his fingers through his sweaty hair... the way he smelled after a fight, after a shower.  But when we were together--- he was gentle and sweet and tender and loving.  I needed the boxer.  And he lost our little fight.

It always fascinates me that cruelty elicits extreme kindness from some of us--- and excessive kindness is embarrassing and tiresome.  My stepmother is cold; some days I think she despises me; I am too conventional, I am mostly monogamous, I bring her flowers on her birthday and this infuriates her.  She hates holidays.  She is anti-maternal, and I am content to sit at her feet and receive her rebukes like a blessing.  Occasionally I cry.  On the other hand, my own father is mean and I despise him.   My real mother is quite mad and reinvents the past daily.  We know so little of one another-- and there is so little time to unravel the fictions we all wear like fashion.  My stepmother is childless and really never valued my attention.

So we look through our colored glasses, or our blindfolds, and we see what we see, we love what we choose to see, or what we cannot see.  We are what we are not, or are not what we are.  For some of us, we love what we love, even when or especially when it does not love us in return.  Is this teaching  the lesson, like a version of God, that there is no reward for love-- sometimes no answer on the telephone, nothing but a shadow in our bed when we awake?  Or, like Stiller, nothing but accusations and a jail cell, for the crime of either being the criminal or not being the criminal.

On my block there is a strange woman who puts her little dogs in a pram and wheels them around.
She mutters and shakes her head at me--- wonders where I think I am going with that instrument I carry on my back and my stupid black boots.  And why I talk to that kind white-haired writer whom she has described in an under-her-breath whisper as a 'murderer'.    I do not fathom to know what prompts her charade with the dogs who seem quite morose and unfriendly.   I do know, as does the writer, that she is not Stiller.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

What if Dog Was One of Us?


I came down to Starbucks to write today, thinking I need a change of scene— all set with my headphones and my chill music… and here on line is this unfamiliar, loud woman with a golden retriever who she claims is a service dog... sprawled out, itching himself to distraction.  Now I am a long-standing dog lover--  but the woman, besides having an extra sort of ball of fat (too old to be pregnant) jutting over her mangy jeans, while barking her order, is texting like mad and speaking in the most annoying tone to people she is apparently soliciting to share some sort of living space with her.  Handicapped people-- the genuine ones-- I have observed, have enormous courtesy skills.   I have a friend who pulls this sort of bs in his local café where he sits nightly with his dog tied outside (maybe legal) and fields complaints by insisting his is a service dog.  Reminds me of the old joke—drunk goes into a bar with his scruffy little mutt, asks for a drink, is told he must remove his dog.  Insists he is blind, that his dog is 'working'. So the bartender tells him—‘That’s no seeing eye dog… seeing eye dogs are Retrievers, Shepherds’.  – ‘So what’d they give me, then?’ the guy asks. 

So... this is apparently my mantra of the day... What’d they give me then?  I woke up with some kind of hole--- I’ve become addicted to watching films at 6 AM which are somehow the Sundance ‘B’ movies and odd unrated stuff that no one else you know has ever seen.   The characters are always perversely lonely and isolated and eccentric or vaguely criminal or cruel and underbaked as humans… and more than myself I begin to panic about my kids--- how they will become contented, compassionate people in this culture without my eccentric little injections about art and passion and true, non-financial generosity which I realize have only piled up like useless old magazines in the trash-files of their young brains.

What did they give me?  Why do I look in the sweet eyes of 4-year olds and see future sorrow… why do I feel the need to read to corn-rowed toddlers in East Harlem who seem to be begging me-- strapped into their Medicaid-paid strollers with barbecue chips and coke, while their mothers scream at phantom baby-Daddies on speaker-phone…shuffling down Third Ave…kids running all over the place… getting smacked and cursed at.  If I took one home, he’d hate me.  He’d crave rap music and those blue Hawaiian drinks and I’d never be able to braid his hair the way his mother did.   

I used to spend all this time making healthy lunches… going without so my son could have decent sandwiches on whole-grain bread.. .with fruit and carrots and good things… only to find one morning one of my little recyclable bags on top of the corner trash can… apparently a daily toss--- too heavy, and who wants to bring their mother to school when it’s the only independent time you get and besides, there’s McDonald’s--- or pizza.  How long had this been going on?  How did he figure out it’s simpler not to engage in a dialogue-- -just to ‘delete’ anything parental and burdensome? 

Did you ever notice that when you feel broken--- really broken--- sometimes your dreams are okay--- almost ‘normal’… sort of happy--- missing dogs come back, your mother is there, not yelling at you--- your ex-husband is smiling, your hair is long and shiny--- it ‘feels’ good?  You are wearing a dress… something like this.  And you wake up--- and here is the goddam imposter service dog itching like mad while you have spent $2.67 for coffee and the privilege of a table and chair and some bad café-music while you try to work on a novel only your wonderful best friend will read, because she is getting depressed by your poetry ---and you have played your heart out the night before, your fingers feel abused, the monthly royalties are not enough to cover a new cartridge for the printer and you are forced to admit the only income today will be the $5 extra-bucks at CVS.  For this I am grateful. 

There’s always ebay --- more and more of my friends are earning grocery-money from their old shopping habits, but I can’t face this.  I’d rather dump my things at the local thrift shop where I can actually see them on the shelves or not have to worry about value or even a receipt, in my pathetic starving-artist zero tax bracket.   And I’ve never really had ‘shopping habits’… I tend to wear everyone else’s clothes until they suicide. 

I’m tempted to go into the subway to play some new songs--- but my son’s friends occasionally take trains and this is so humiliating for him… I guess I could wear a disguise but that feels wrong, too.  The fact that I have something to say, and new songs to try out seems like an adequate defense…but then I have to fight the other beggars and narcissists…I have to become bitter about the pathetic ‘Once’ duos and the Landslide guy--- and the bad jazz groups who at least can play a little… and then that R & B drummer and the guy with the crooked head who sings like an angel who really make me ashamed of my lack of promotional skills—after all, I’m white and educated and have a laptop.  Why can’t I figure it out and just put some green into their bucket?  Go back to my East Village and Williamsburg venues and knock myself out for trainfare in a hat which I am too proud to pass around, they do not say.  Or come sing with us--- which they occasionally do say, and which I do not.  What’d they give me?  I’m not a narcissist.  I want to play my own music but I don’t really want to be there.  How can you hit a home run or even strike out when you don’t step up to any kind of plate?

Now the fake blind girl is calling everyone on Craigslist and giving her spiel.  Her name is Meg. I know more about her life than most of my neighbors know about me.  I am intimately acquainted with the smell of her dog and I know how she likes her coffee.  The dog is like obsessively licking his butt now, and his owner is too busy looking at craigslist to see that he is maybe going to damage himself.  What’d they give him?, he is maybe thinking.  All that training and he is a fraud, lying down on these hideous cold tiles while all around him people are having overpriced donuts and sandwiches and no one is allowed to pet him.  He can’t even sleep.  He’s tied to this stool, and he’s actually a little cute.  I just gave him a wave, and he wagged his tail.  Rescue me, he is saying.  I know exactly what he needs.  And if I feel like an old fisherman rowing out into cold rough waters every day in my leaky boat with a dead worm on a hook, coming back at dusk or dawn with no catch… imagine how he feels… the intelligence to be sniffing out bombs in Afghanistan with young servicemen who will play ball with him and wrestle… and he’s stuck with a fake blind girl who is fat and unlikable--- can’t even find a roommate on Craigslist, tethered to a stool in a Manhattan café, unpaid, unsung, unspoiled, unfed, itching. 

Apparently she promotes artists.  I can’t even imagine.  Art for the blind.  I have to leave before I offer to exchange this itchy dog for a seeing-eye snake.   He could maybe bring me some income in the subway--- a pair of sunglasses---not like I'm actually lying.   The dog is stretching.  He has needs.  I don’t know what my needs are any longer.   

A few years ago I had a book deal. They wanted to release it on a massive national scale as a teenaged sort of Catcher in the Rye for Girls.  But---  I had to remove some x-rated razor mutilation things.  Then a few graphic shooting-up paragraphs which over-romanticized drug use.  In the end, on the signing table, it got down to the 'god-damns'.  You’re clever, the Pollyanna-maybe-virgin-goody-midwestern- church-going editor insisted—you’ll come up with an alternative.  For god-damn?  You know, she coaxed--- like a euphemism.  Like dog-damn, I asked?  Or like dog-mad?  That works, she said….but I wouldn’t take a canine’s name in vain that way.  Dogs are innocent.  God is omniscient, which means, if he exists, he’s guilty.  He swears, too.  Anyway, she told her upper bosses that I was unreasonable and difficult and they suggested I try an independent publisher. 

So I’m watching Meg’s dog who obviously needs to relieve himself but is too kind and Christian to resent his owner…and would probably bark if I tried to sneak him out and maybe he doesn’t really care that he’s part of a small scam… and he gives me a little look as I leave--- like--- yeah, I know… but I’m  inside, and those other guys are tied to the hydrant out there... and I’m cuing up some Art Tatum on my ever-ironic mental soundtrack who maybe never needed a dog, but was mad-good.