Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Mirror Images

Digital time has made it difficult to rewind.  We can't stop clocks and we can't straddle a moment the way I used to think I could.  My web post will register in 2013 or 2014 depending on when I press 'save'.  But I deliberately began this one in the old year and left it in edit mode so I could actually finish 'from the other side'.  My 2013 self could be looking back while the 2014 me is looking ahead.  Or vice versa, which would mean my two selves are facing one another on this digital border, like mirror images.

Mirrors have taken a back seat these days.  Most of us are looking at phone images, taking selfies, monitoring hair and make-up with photos.  Girls know exactly which way their eyebrow slants when they are blinking, they know how white their teeth look and exactly which strand of hair should fall over their forehead.  The old 4-frame photo booth strips which iconicized our relationships and helped us ID the ones that were awkward or doomed-- well, they have been replaced by thousands of technicolor digital seconds.  For those of us who aren't famous, we are our own relentless paparazzi.

My gym was recently renovated and they removed the mirrors in the cardio-rooms.  I could care less… but I notice the girls looking at their phones… I remember having teenage face-offs with my reflection--- tormenting myself, asking questions, trying to 'see' something I couldn't feel, trying to analyze and decide how to advise my inner self--- how to manage my outer self--- who I appeared to be, who I was, who I could become….how I looked when I lied about things, when I tried out things I wanted to say to my boyfriend.

Despite my middle-aged complacency and 'acceptance' mode, there are still people who annoy me.  I should be above this by now but I'm not.  There's an annoying grey-haired woman named Martha at our gym.  She wears a shredded fanny pack and taped-up Keds on her feet and she goes from machine to machine, stands and plays with the screen, wastes everyone's time, converses with anyone who will listen, and apparently has nowhere to go.  She carries these plastic grocery bags and I've seen her stealing rolls of toilet paper and towels in the locker room.  She chatters.  I hate chatterers.  She's constantly changing clothes and showering and drying her hair and sometimes I think she is homeless.  Once someone gave me flowers and I left them in a locker and they disappeared and turned up in hers.  She asked me in September if I have a problem with her and I do, but of course I said no.

The day before New Year's eve she left the gym behind me… chattering as usual, telling me where I could work out for nothing on New Year's Day.  Then she asked me what religion I am.  This is a question I find invasive and highly personal, but for someone like Martha, admitting you have an opinion is like a segue-way into a new chatter-detour.  I need to be vague here.  Christian, I say.  I'm Christian.  So what is that, she asks…and tells me she's a Roman Catholic and doesn't understand what Christian means.  Well, I say, I was married in the Anglican church.  My son attended an Episcopal School.  This church we're passing right now is Presbyterian.  But Roman Catholic-- she tells me.  She knows where she stands.  Whenever she finds some lost headphones or a sweatshirt, she says, she turns it right in.  She puts it in the reception desk drawer, because she knows how some of the night cleaners disrespect the lost and found.  They throw stuff out.  They keep stuff.  But she's Roman Catholic.  It doesn't matter that she's Dominican and American and has several pilfered boxes of kleenex from the locker room,  not to mention all of my missing headphones.

And she keeps on--- all the way up Lexington Ave… trying to back me into some corner where she can enjoy some metaphoric pathetic victory, but I refuse to bite.  I'm determined to be non-judgmental and kind.  I'm good at defense; I return every volley in a non-aggressive way.  I use minimal replies.  Something about me bugs her.  She knows I know and she's set on somehow steamrolling it out.  Finally I tell her I need to catch a train.  I duck underground.  Moments later I see her in the grocery store, lurking around and trying to talk to all the managers and stock boys who obviously have experienced her.  I see her stash something from the shelves.   Where are the security mirrors?  Where is Martha's mirror?

I go home and try to forgive myself for my lack of compassion for Martha.  I love my home--- the things--- nothing is absolutely great, but everything is good.  From the kitchen one square of a painting is reflecting some eerie light.  Like a cross.  Shining.  A sign.  My niece is being raised Jewish.  Maybe it's easier; Jews don't see the face of Mary in a croissant, or a pieta in a potato.  They wouldn't feel the urge to cross themselves because I feel maybe Jesus is watching me from my wall, making me look at my intolerance.   The mirror of Jesus.  Christmas light.

My niece told me when she was Bat-Mitzvahed she blew out a candle and wished she could become anorexic.  It was such a perfect teenage literary moment.  A Catholic-worthy confession.  She's struggling.  It is what it is, my friend the psychiatrist tells me.  I hate that expression.  It isn't anything.  It was.  Even that has no peace; they change the truth.  Someone slept with the dead man; the dead man raped someone and owes people money.  There was a guy in the subway today, begging.  He had an amputated leg and it was unwrapped.  It was the worst surgical mess anyone had ever seen and we all donated generously even though he was exploiting his own deformity.

Christmas.  New Year's.  Scams and schemes and begging and Martha from my gym stealing biscuits in a roll at Pioneer.  I am not going to make her feel guilty.  I am going to avoid her.  I am going to try not to cross into the New Year with these old cans tied to my ankles.  Things are good.  I can be good.  I can jump from one year into the next.

But here I am--- the digital seconds relentless--while I played a song, while I waved goodbye to old endings, while the mirror of 2013 for a split second faced the mirror of 2014 and I am wondering if maybe they traded places because here I am, on  stage, in a black dress, toasting a moment, and my friend is yelling over the music that she is leaving because 'these are not her kind of people' here,  and she fails to see the irony, or the failure, and I don't dare scold or judge her tonight of all nights, even though I know better, even though I have a mirror and maybe it simply is what it was and that will be that.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Long Distance

Late gig nights I take a crosstown bus home.  In the early morning hours there are few passengers and the driver and I get to know each other.  Some times he stalls, waits for me.  At my end, he drops me in front of my building, watches me enter and lock the door.  We wave.  We exchange old memories on the trip through the park; he tells me about his ailments.  It's a fact that retired MTA drivers have short lives.  Something about the job, or the shock of retirement--- so when one of them leaves, I am sad.  Occasionally there have been women; they are tougher-- the late-night routes are dangerous and a little lonely.  But we night people and day-sleepers have some commonality.  We see things.

The current driver has a sort of crush on me.  He has admitted to missing me when I get a ride home; he worries about me.  I missed 2 weeks because I had another gig and he was practically joyful-- for a bus driver-- when I boarded Monday night at 2:21 AM.  He asked me all kinds of questions--- he wants to come and see a show now.  I am a little shy.  He knows things.

Tonight I had dinner with an old friend and we laughed over the 18-year-old selves we were when we met.  He wanted to know who I've been dating-- so, besides the crosstown bus driver, I couldn't think of anyone I felt like offering up for questioning.  It seemed not just exotic but a conversation-stopper.  The minute I blurted it out, he remembered how I'd had a brief affair with a Formula One driver.  At the time I had no clue what Formula One meant--- in fact I thought they might be some kind of toy slot cars…. I was unimpressed.   He was cool, though, and sexy and tan, and I took him home.  Things were always casual for me then; I was chronically pre-occupied-- with music, my career, some dysfunctional triangular relationship-- who knows?  But it was this sort of inattentiveness that drove this guy and maybe a few others crazy.  And it wasn't me, per se… but the fact that I wasn't waiting for their call, and had no interest in watching him race toy cars or going on his yacht or whatever…  no matter how many dozen roses he sent, how many necklaces and cute notes.

In fact I might now have more compassion for the crosstown bus driver, with whom I have no interest in having coffee or a drink or whatever.  I am still preoccupied and more interested in my books and art and music.  I have grown to love my solitude like a companion, and I can't seem to explain to people like my old mother that new men in my life are intruders.

Tonight my Mom called me and told me she was leaving my Dad.  He is 95 and rarely speaks these days.  She spends her hours watching him watch Bloomberg and nap.  She is preoccupied.  But tonight he snapped at her and threatened to call the police because she was bugging him. When he does this, she loses her bearings and calls me.  My telephone number is the anchor in her life.  No matter what happens, she calls-- over and over.  It grounds her.  Tonight she wanted me to come get her before they took her to jail.  After a few minutes, she forgets all about it.  She even scolds me for calling her so late and waking my father up.

I find myself these nights watching movies with my mother's eyes-- TCM,  CUNY, Antenna TV.  She claims she's never seen these films, but we used to talk about them endlessly.  She dragged me with her to see Katherine Hepburn and Claudette Colbert.  She loved films about New York City showgirls and young actresses.  She loved Broadway and she loved Richard Burton.  We saw plays and musicals when I was much too young to understand them.  She would get dressed up with gloves and a hat and her beautiful shoes, and sometimes the actors would speak to her, after the show-- -call her 'bella' and give her a flower.  She never flirted, but there was something girlish about her love of this world, and I was like her sister.  Her date.  I felt important.

My mother is past the mental competency required for reminiscing.  I have now inherited that task.  The funny thing is, it doesn't really make me sad, the way it did her-- the way it does many of my friends these days.  In this odd way, I am finally content.  I am my preoccupation; I have nothing else to distract me.  I walked through the Christmas midtown press on Monday and realized--- besides my son, who wants slightly less than everything this year, I want nothing.  I actually have every thing I want-- -a place to live, great books, my favorite instruments for making music, just enough work to manage another month of electricity and maintenance, enough cranberries and flour and sugar for Christmas cookies, some candles, soap…whatever.

Maybe I am at a sort of plateau.  Maybe this is the last one; maybe there will be 'down' on the other side… maybe decline or death.  I can't really stop the descent; I can't keep my old mother from her confusion and I can't take her to theatre for Christmas.  She is terrified of stairs.  Of the outside world.  I am enormously thankful to have my own cd-- and even a video now-- I can't worry that very few people on this earth know I exist;  it doesn't seem to preoccupy me the way the writing of the songs does.  I can't stop these pigeons from flying into oncoming cars on 42nd street, and I can't lecture the Chinese street portraitist that he is wasting his extraordinary gift making cheap $5 souvenirs for tourists.

I am a grown-up.  Some tortuous process has stopped and it is enough that I have avoided catastrophe today.  I don't want to go to Sri Lanka or Bali.  I want to have a coffee and read some Chilean poetry.
I still browse bookstores and acquire odd things.

Last week I picked up an obscure anthology of poems and was absolutely knocked out by a a few lines from someone named Robert Long.  Online not much-- an obituary;  he died at 51-- no biography, no details.  A great Luc Sante review of a small volume saying something like 'the beauty and precision of his words ensures that these pieces will be read and reread'.  I have looked in stores and libraries; no one I have asked has even heard of this man.   I have these few poems.  If this is how he is remembered, I am privileged to share his obscurity.  In fact, perhaps this is the Robert Long Memorial Christmas for me… I have unwrapped the gift of his forgotten words and will re-read the one about Madame Bovary and promise in the new year to remember to notice the moments are all equal, even though they don't seem that way.  And the trip across town is exactly the same distance, and distance has its disadvantages, said Robert Long, no matter who drives, no matter if it's snowing or raining, and the full moon will be back to witness that for us 'it is too late to start over.'