Monday, December 29, 2014

Bell Clear

When you are small, you learn to listen on Christmas Eve.  There was usually snow, which mutes the street noise, and the sound of old radiators clanking keeping you at the edge of sleep when you were already excited about stockings and presents.  I always swore I heard sleigh bells in the near distance, and sneaked out of bed to check the windows and make sure our Glasswax Santa-stencils looked perfect enough for the Man himself.

These years I am grateful for the bells of the Brick Church which chime out Christmas carols, and the muffled train whistles from  the Metro North.  The rain on Christmas eve was calm and quiet.  Two weeks ago a woman I'd known briefly-- a gorgeous, former Ford model who seemed to have everything-- had hung herself in her country house.  I tried not to miss things, and sat up through the night listening to Handel by the blinking lights of the tree feeling grateful for the simple gift of groceries.

Christmas night, I went down to the laundry room.  My building, during holidays, is quite deserted.  I have the job of taking in everyone's newspaper.  Someone, like a gift,  had left a toy piano on the folding table-- a real antique one, made of wood.  All the keys worked and I plunked out a few simple carols in the dark and had one of those Proustian moments remembering the one my older sister had been given so many years ago.  For some reason hers reminded me of Cinderella.  Maybe everything that year reminded me of Cinderella-- but I craved it and she wouldn't let me touch it until years later when she discarded it altogether and hid it in the basement where I secretly banged out songs to my heart's content.  It was magical.

That same year Santa brought me a set of those colored bells which was absolutely my best present ever.  It was tedious, but you could essentially manage most songs if you didn't care about octave accuracy.  The two blue ones were my favorites. I polished them and covered them at night with a doll blanket.  I'm sure they have tons of these on ebay.  They were called Freedom bells, or that's what I called them.

My sister and I have been estranged for years.  For a brief minute in the laundry room, I thought of her and her Cinderella piano, ribbons in her ponytail matching her red plaid Christmas dress.  That was the Freedomland year, the fantasy amusement park they built somewhere in the Bronx which our parents boycotted for some reason.  It had been plagued by financial woes, freak accidents and bad luck.  But we children were desperate to see it.  My sister was 10 or 11- in 6th grade, and I was only 7.  All the kids on our block, including our cousins, decided we were going to cut school one day and go.  We had bus maps and timetables.  We knew exactly how we would do it.  So we began-- bake sales, hot chocolate, lemonade stands, hoarding unicef pennies… until we had a small pile of savings which would get us onto all the rides, hot dogs and roundtrip tickets.  We planned it out to the last detail… and one night---who knows why-- my sister told our parents.  She did stuff like that-- unplanned, non-sequitur weird behavioral about-faces.  They got on the phone, alerted all the others, and we were not just punished but forced to turn over our earnings.  I was utterly miserable.

The next morning, my cousins came over and started screaming at me.  Apparently my sister told everyone I was the traitor.  I was too young to have any credibility, and of course it made sense that the 'baby', as they all taunted me, had tattled.  It was unbearable.  My sister wouldn't look at me, and took her punishment like a martyr.  But I was tormented, I was hated.  It was not just the devastating disappointment of my trip and the fact that I had donated my little Winnie the Poohs to the purse---  but it was maybe my first real betrayal.

I guess the neighborhood kids eventually forgave me; one of the nicer mothers tried to console us with the news that some child had been paralyzed by another accident, and it could have been us.  But my sister never apologized.  Not only that--- someone bent the clapper of my favorite bell so it didn't ring anymore.  My sister hated me.  Maybe just because she had to share our Mom, a closet, whatever.  But years later, there were similar betrayals-- boys I loved, money she stole, things I traded her so she wouldn't say malicious things about me.  I had to do damage control.

Among the things I miss at Christmas-- the people, the places-- my sister is not.  I occasionally think I should call her-- it is adult closure, isn't it?  But I don't; I don't even know her phone number.  Every time someone in my life does something mean-spirited or manipulative, I think of her, of how maybe these things warped me and taught me not to trust people.  But I do trust people.  Even when they do totally unexpected and unkind things.

My friend's dog bit him the other day-- not just a nick, but a deep, penetrating wound.  He didn't really mean it-- he was riled by another dog and got sort of confused.  Dogs don't really apologize, and I accepted my sister's behavior.  It was a lesson.  Years later I used to take my son down to Coney Island and we would watch the Cyclone for hours while we ate grilled corn and pretzels.  Neither of us will ever take the ride, but we liked to watch, from a distance.  I will never betray my son, and he knows it.  I can't say that for anyone else, but that's the way it is.

I went back down to the laundry room at 5 AM; I decided I'd adopt the piano-- maybe give it to my guitar player friend who would undoubtedly appreciate the nostalgia of its imperfect tuning…. but it was gone.   Like those Christmas-story ghost visitors, like my own Christmas vision-- it was there, I know it was there.. .and then it wasn't.

My cousin called to wish me a happy holiday.  We talked about the girl who hung herself and our kids, about Freedomland and my damaged bells.  She said she still has nightmares about my sister.  We had a great laugh and it felt good.  My son slept over and went to have a beer and watch basketball at our local bar.  We walked home in the clearing late afternoon light and listened to the train whistle and the church bells chiming out Joy to the World.  I didn't tell him about the bells, or the toy piano; he doesn't have that 'gene', as he says, but he stopped for a minute and took a shot of the train as it went into the Park Ave. tunnel.  We used to stand there for hours-- even in the rain, when he was small.  And right at that instant, as he pressed the camera button, the mall trees lit up, and it was Christmas, and for the moment, all was calm and all was bright.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Small Change

When I was in college there was this eccentric professor who walked up and down Nassau Street hunched over in an ancient trench coat, scanning the sidewalks for loose change.  Not the 'Beautiful Mind' mathematician-- this man taught 19th century European painting-- although in the 1970's there were all kinds of characters who lurked in university towns.  Anyway, it was rumored that he picked up an additional $4,000 a year from his activity.

The other night on the uptown A, a middle aged woman was nodding out, leaning forward-- small coins falling out of her pockets.  I made an effort to collect some of them, and put them on the seat.  Once or twice she startled, and brushed them off her coat like live bugs.  I couldn't help remembering the old blind beggar on our corner when my son was small… with his bucket and his German Shepherd, swaying back and forth like Stevie at the piano.  My son would collect pennies in a jar and bring them by on his little wagon.  The blind guy would feel around and ask him 'there ain't no quarters or nothin'? and my son would solemnly swear they were all pennies (he had no clue about value-- he loved Abraham Lincoln) and toddle off.

Last Saturday on my way to Chelsea, an unsmiling girl in a long dress was working the train-- a child in her arms, one on the way.  She had a sign explaining she'd lost her job, she had 2 kids, etc.  She stopped in front of every passenger and stared, brazenly.  So many people just looked through her, busy and rude with their earbuds or their phones.  I was down to a post-Thanksgiving $3 and change; I gave her the coins and she glared at me.  I glared back.  Something about using her kids as props-- it turns me off.  How many people pass us, every single day, and ask for something?  I usually give some recycled coins, even if this infuriates the ones that expect at the very least a dollar.

Plenty of nights after I had a baby I wondered where I'd get the day's food, how I'd split a banana 4 ways, how I never, ever got that child support check--- not even $100.  Ever.  How I could never fathom that somewhere in London an alcoholic journalist was obliterating the image of those tiny trusting newborn eyes that look for the first time.  That picture that no one ever gets-- because it is the supreme unphotographable intimacy.  Not just love and a permanent daily Valentine, but a contract.  I couldn't ask; I couldn't yell or whine or even write.  That little wrinkled brand-new serious face that has nothing in its experience but this dialogue of eyes.  It is yours-- maybe the only thing that ever really belonged to you-- your living poem, your perfect pearl that came from all the sandy edgy torment of this love, this marriage which you knew would be hard, but then came this, the final unfathomable riddle.

Money in the street… I was fierce and unrelenting.  There were days this got us through.  Tiny liquid assets-- lost and found change.

Before my friend Jeanne died, she told me every time I saw a dime on the street, it was her angel, giving me a wink.   Some weeks I need Jeanne.  I miss her wild beauty and her reckless behavior.  No one in my life is a 'bad influence' anymore.  But I keep my eyes peeled for coins in the street.  They are a sign-- luck-- a gift.

I woke up in the night, last night, as I often do-- with a song in my head, a poem on my tongue… and for a brief instant, as I reached for the pen and pad, I time-tripped and took a second or two to orient myself in the present:  post-Thanksgiving, kids back home in their own apartment-- my parental work done, more or less… and a line surfaced from Ann Lauterbach…something about remembering the hour but not the passage (sic).  And suddenly I felt this sense of mourning for all the lost poets, for their final hours when they realized that this was the final poem--- that all of the time they spent fretting over language, shopping, going for walks, pining for a great love-- regretting, drinking, eating and hanging out, smoking… making love…. oh, the hours and days and weeks and untiring months we spend with our hearts filled to capacity and entering a body which will have no relevance at the final moment of dying…all of this will not buy us the time to write another poem-- or even just one more line.

My friend called to tell me he is sleeping with a woman 25 years too young.  For her this will be an episode; for him it could be an epic sorrow, a small coin of life he will imbue with huge value, because he is older and the moments we have spent are tonnage against the dwindling number we have left.  And really, I tell him--- he is not just expecting but looking for the heart wreck because most of us have learned that we don't really feel our hearts until they are broken, the way we take our legs and hands for granted until we have an accident.  So a heartbreak is a reminder--- and the minutes that pass in sorrow are the long ones, and children would rather have 100 shiny pennies than one crumpled ugly old dollar.

On the street tonight I had my eyes peeled; I needed the angel to come, even though it is really only a dime, and it is we the poets and believers who light up the moments, who give these crumbs of life magic, these coins in the gutter sewage which under the night lamps sparkle like diamonds even though they might be nothing but a circle of spit.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Once a week I take a Latin Hip Hop dance class.  I've been doing this for years now.  The teacher is a dread-locked ab-ripped prime specimen of dancer-athlete funk-man.  Most of the girls in the always-packed class have a sort of crush on him and he radiates sexy wild confidence and charisma.    I forget my cares there, and dance like no tomorrow, even though I am older by far than anyone else.  Over the years, I've become friendly with my teacher; he's confided his heartbreaks and challenges; occasionally now he has aches and pains and injuries.

Tonight there were a few new girls.  He interacted with one of them, as he often does-- guiding her through a routine-- and as he put his hand on her arm, she trembled and blushed to deep red.  I had this flashback of being 15, an aspiring ballerina, in this African technique class with a well-known dancer named Rod Rodgers.  We all had this giggly girl fascination with him; he was statuesque and beautiful, and he moved like a young god.  He'd touch us to correct our posture or stance, and I would feel electrified.  Walking home I would touch myself wherever he touched me and feel changed forever.  He was always gentle and never inappropriate… he was strong and extremely tender, as though he was well aware of our fragile age and our beating hearts.  I knew when I was older and found my soulmate, he would touch me exactly that way.

Over the years I have exchanged so many stories with hundreds and thousands of women.  Some have been so violated and abused; some feared and hated men; others craved their attention mercilessly.  I realized, in this class tonight, that my sense of men-- my personal barometer of the physical experience-- had so much to do with my dance teacher, and his lyrical personal tenderness with just the right mix of respect and love and no agenda but his professional focus.  No shame, no awkward hesitation.  He was strong and direct and perfect.  Graceful.  Nurturing.

When I met my first love, I wasn't completely sure until he touched me.  Then I knew.  I've had so many lovers since-- a couple of husbands, and many live-in partners.  Not all of them were just right, but one or two were.  I find it hard to fathom, in this era of online dating and Facebook romance, how anyone can sense this from a digital introduction.  I don't even know how people can buy something as personal as a guitar online.  I have to hold them.  I can go through hundreds; then one is just right-- the Goldilocks thing… but harder.  It's so intimate… your guitar… the neck, the body… you will be holding this thing and playing your heart out through this….how can anyone buy a guitar by spec and color and shape, like a mail-order bride?  You will grow old with this, and become more and more entwined.  It will become your voice, your muse, your friend.  When your lover leaves, you will pick it up and it will cry for you.

When you have children, something in you knows how they need to be touched-- at least for some of us.  They elicit some ultimate tenderness---especially when they are feverish or sad, or sleeping.  You stroke their hair and some wonderful calm and quiet joy fills your heart.  They grow up and you miss this.  Sometimes you don't even realize that you miss this.  I can't remember my tough father ever touching me… I am sure my Mom must have, but she was always busy.  I had dogs.  They were always happy to sleep on my bed and endlessly affectionate.

Last week I observed my son and his girlfriend.  He touches her in this way that lets me know he has understood something.  I hope this is what she needs; they seem to be so happy together, and this doesn't always last.  Sometimes you get to this point where the mere touch of someone is enough to drive you mad-- the same person whose body you couldn't get enough of just a few brief months before.  Such is life and passion.

I am older now; I can only remember the way I used to toss and turn at night thinking about my first great love-- how the separations were unbearable and the minutes felt like days… and how the nights together would pass-- sometimes we'd stay awake, to stretch them out.  How I would dream about him.  He died so young; I have a pack of letters which were painful for him to write-- the kind of letters you only write in your 20's when you are brave and burning up.  I have these to remind me that it was real--  and to remind me about the touch.

Last night at a noisy rock club, a woman I'd just met was ill.  She lay down on a bench next to me with her head in my lap, and I stroked her hair the way I used to stroke my son's when he was sick.  I felt this wave of compassion--- of peace.  Maybe this is what nurses have-- the ones with a calling;  or caretakers.  Maybe this is what love and passion become as we get older, because lately I have not thought about 'the touch'.  Anyway, the woman got better.

I don't like people to play my guitars anymore… well, maybe a few people--- but only the ones I really love-- the ones that have 'the touch'.  It's like having a new baby-- they are so innocent and clean and tiny--- and everyone wants to pick them up, and you let them, but it is unbearable, and you want everyone to hold them just right--with gentleness and a sense of what is exactly right for them.  Some of us have this-- a kind of healing thing, a kind of 'connection' that made your husband not want to leave, that makes your kids know they are 'home' when they cry on your shoulder.  And some of us may never understand this; some of us are warped by cruelty and have fallen in love with pain.  Some people whack their guitars and smash things and feel better.  I guess I used to do that occasionally too.  But I know better, and I will always be grateful to Rod Rodgers, and I hope that new girl in my dance class  and my own kids will pass on 'the touch'.

Friday, November 14, 2014


Last week my son turned 25.  This prompted an uninspired shopping expedition which these days consists of a whirlwind tour in and out of various Soho 'label' stores, me getting a crash course in trendy fashion, the mid-20's consumer culture, a hands-on introduction to several moderate luxury items I've browsed online.  I'm always hopeful that by some miracle of fate and season there will be a single pair of leather boots or J Brand jeans or that Montcler jacket at 95 percent discount-- an irregular, a close-out, a mid-season return.  The reality is we both generally end up hungry, exhausted and humbled-- as though we've been allowed the briefest glimpse of paradise but no entry.

My French god-daughter and I once went on a day-long spree during which she tried on every dress, coat, ensemble, boot--- up and down Madison… twirling and deliberating, strutting like a princess, and ended up happily eating $1 hotdogs in our thrift shop jeans and leather.

My son doesn't have that gene.  He has sophistication mixed with ghetto values that want to own these things.  An iphone 6 on an entry-level salary doesn't phase him.  His college loan debt does not bother him.  His closet of discarded label-clothing is no argument.   Debt is his back-door man.  My lectures and principles are tap-water through the platinum sieve of his fancy.  The better man in him knows these material things are transitory.  But so is life.  My brain is my largest asset; his future wallet is his.  This year he hates John Varvatos.  I view that as progress.

I've had the same gynecologist since I was a college freshman.  We have developed this rapport now--- he has seen me through the important phases of womanhood and sexuality.  I've been a loyal patient.  He generally is non-invasive and non-judgmental-- asks little.  But as he approaches retirement, he has begun this tradition that we go into his little office and we talk-- no longer about sex and childbirth and clinical things--- but about life, the books we've read-- the death of the New York intellectual, why plastic surgery is perceived by a patient's friends as a disappointment-- etc.  He likes me.  I have a brain, he says, with an irony that tells me he doesn't often encounter this in his young patients.  It is irrelevant that I haven't had the kind of economic success he'd predicted for the precocious Princeton girl with the long legs and enormous vocabulary.  I had 'married' my career priority and surprised myself by my own eccentric ability to manage the city on a starving artist's income.  We have this professional intimacy and I trust him; he values me as a patient and I generally see him every year around my son's birthday-- Election Day-- marathon week.  It's a ritual I will miss when he finally throws in his speculum.

As I leave his office, I am vaguely consoled that there is no real emotional hangover from my failure to dazzle my son with a gift.  He deserves to be dazzled-- but is approaching the age when he will indulge himself rather than take the proverbial food from his mother's plate.  Besides, I gave him my iPad.  It was an extravagant gift from a super-rich lawyer to acknowledge the volunteer work I do.  I confess I've never used it.  It's not a brand new one, but he liked it.  It's a pretty good present, with another year of Applecare still on the books.

I walked to and from the doctor's office; the weather was mild and I saved the $5 metro-fare.  Coming through the park, I was thinking over our discussion about the subjectivity of sexuality, and I stepped on a $20.  $20.  In my pathetic world, this is life-changing.  Maybe in some households on the other side of the world-- -even the other side of town, this is also a windfall.  But in the Soho Bloomingdales, this was a useless bill.  I'd browsed $400 shirts, $600 lace-up boots, a really nice jacket for $2,600, and $500 jeans.  Everything seemed just so sad to me…there were a couple of young men in there buying-- some overdressed mothers indulging their sons… and 2 pairs of rap-star posers with every single symbol of fashion status including designer tattoos… commentating and handling the scarves and belts.  It's not about the quality, my son explained, who had generally worn the Century 21 belts and Syms parkas with sportsmanship and style-- it's the fit.   A similar observation had been made in my gynecologist's office, which elicited a subdued chuckle from the wise doctor who had authored, in the 1970's,  a cutting edge book called 'Healthy Sex'.

Outside Bloomingdales, after our fill of Soho labels and the kid-in-the-candy-store thing, 2 of the girls we'd seen inside were trying on handcuffs and being shown into a patrol car.  One size fits all, I remarked.  My son gave me that look-- -after all, I'd bailed him out a few times during teenage years.   The amazing thing was, he'd only stolen things he didn't really want-- like they were for someone else… some kind of warped pride in that.  Besides, he always had those rich girlfriends who shopped for him at the Prada and Armani store.  But even that got tired.

My friend has a high-end art gallery.  Last week she hired an outside consultant for an in-house gallery retreat which was a 4-hour meeting during which the consultant told her the place was dysfunctional and she failed to communicate and acknowledge her employees.  They were too disheartened by her attitude to fight for their opinions.  For this advice she paid $12,000.  I gave her the identical analysis 2 weeks ago on the phone, for nothing.  But without a price tag it was useless.  Consumo ergo sum.

I still refuse to give in.  With my $20 I bought some groceries, 2 great books at a thrift shop, a fantastic vintage ceramic tile as a new-baby present, a lotto ticket, a homeless guy's hotdog and coke, and I tipped my local Starbucks barista $5.  He gives me great coffee every day and charges me for a refill which is free.  $20 would not get my son through half a day.  When I die my greatest asset will go with me.  No, at this moment I can't afford to fix my teeth or have my bass re-fretted; I can't afford my son's shoes or a new iPad.  I still have no cellphone. But I will get what I need, as will my son.  He may even get what he wants, which is not necessarily what he needs, as my gynecologist and I know, and which he will learn when he really needs to know this-- when he finds a Moncler jacket or a diamond Rolex lying in his path and he decides to leave it there for the next guy.

Friday, October 31, 2014


Exactly 25 years ago I went into labor.  I begged the gods (and they obliged) to give me a one-week respite.  The concept of a lifetime of wearing costumes for a themed birthday party was unappealing… and something about Halloween, for the more literal among us, is confusing.  Some of us talk to angels every day-- and trolls and devils.  We fear painted-on smiles and puppetry, while we see Death among the faces in Times Square, Jesus in a slice of toast, and find our pot of gold in a leathery-faced man with a thrift-shop guitar.

Especially since I have long passed the midpoint of my life, I avoid holidays which celebrate and mock death.  I am grateful not to have to commemorate a birthday with masks and pumpkin heads.  Coming from the kind of family where you were responsible for your own costume,  the experience of listening to strange door-tones and smelling the leafy fall night air were my best childhood souvenirs.  Conversely, I wouldn't want to die on Halloween.  My best friend was buried in a designer black dress with her dark-henna hair clean and shiny...and her face still and pale in full Goth make-up.  All dressed up… the way she used to watch the Rocky Horror film when I wasn't playing a gig.  Her image comes to me every October 31st.  All dressed up, the way her remains would be if someone dug them up.  It's eerie.  It seems wrong.

Last weekend they held the pre-Halloween memorial for my beloved adopted stepmother who took her own life in July.  She expressly forbade ceremonies, funerals, etc.  This gathering was intended to celebrate her brief foray into experimental film-making from the 1960's which won her more hipster-cred than her maybe 1-200,000 hours of dedicated drawing and painting.  It was held at a small theatre; I received a hand-written invite.  So I took the subway, on a Sunday afternoon, $2.50 out of my daily spending allowance of $4, and was delayed by police activity at 14th Street.  I arrive 15 minutes late; the screening has begun, and I am asked for $20 contribution.

Well… backstory---I have sold 40-50 of her drawings over the years,  in my former capacity as a gallerist…  placed her work in some wonderful collections, never took a cent of commission, since she lived this very frugal lifestyle.  I assumed she was poor.  I am poor; we tread lightly around others' financial handicaps.  So I spent hours taking notes, arranging her books, cleaning her house, organizing her life, mailing letters, bringing her hand-made gifts and cherished visitors.  But apparently she had loads of money, and half a townhouse, and had some estranged nieces and sycophants who in the end were 'there'.   And somehow,  my mother or grandfather had given me this notion that it's not appropriate to take credit cards to a memorial, and I'd come, in my one blue dress and leather jacket, with only keys and a metro card.  No cell phone, of course; nor would I have texted any of the guests with my pathetic issue.

Okay…so the smug girl at the booth with the trendy haircut seemed even more composed when the tears began (I am so uncool at times).  After a useless attempt at negotiation,  I left like a humiliated gatecrasher, and wept all the way home on the bus (free X-fer, small consolation) with wet mascara stains running down my dress.  I'm not even sure what the moral here is, because apparently I was the only one who saw the irony in paying admission to celebrate the life or death of someone I had loved, whose films I'd watched umpteen times without the company of the hipster audience who knew little of her soul or her underdressed, no-admission life-- this woman who, outside of her under-fulfilled desire for artistic fame, was my hero, my confidante and mentor for so many years.  Except that she might have ignored me, had she been there.  She might have preferred these nouveau, well-dressed film-fans to the full but cash-poor heart on my worn-leather sleeve.

There are several blocks in my neighborhood which literally compete for Halloween bling.  Private townhouses are swathed in webs and lights and witches on broomsticks suspended above ghosts and monsters and vampires.  Some of them even speak and groan and howl.  The pumpkins are catered… faces are carved with the finesse of a Kara Walker.  I cannot imagine the calibre of candy these people hand out.  It is beyond me.

By midnight, the rain had basically chased away the trick-or-treaters; lights were out, the web and fibrous material was soaked and sagging and sad; the vampires and witches looked a little cold and bewildered.  On our garbage pails were several discarded pumpkins and some party trash… orange cups and candy wrappers.  I took one of the pumpkins upstairs and without thinking, I opened a can of Benjamin Moore and painted it black.  There it sat, my pumpkin in disguise, like a punishment-- like a souvenir of failure and mourning and aborted Halloween.  Like a giant ridiculous mark of punctuation on my day of shame, day of the dead, but not for me who lacked the price of admission.

We are all ghosts and spirits here… we are walking shadows.  When the lights go out we disappear, we are leveled and costume-less and skeletal.  We masquerade and we dance, we make films or music and we cry and we blink and we love and we die.  My pumpkin and I are alone in the dark; I light a candle and through the night rain I can still hear the looped mocking deep digital laugh track of the mechanical Caped Man with the Skull who is waving his scythe back and forth at the top of the steps on the $10-million townhouse on the next block.  Someone forgot to turn him off--- or they cannot, and a lyric is going around in my  head, between the laughs… the one Bob Dylan borrowed from the Bible, from the hymnals… and the first one now will later be last.  

Sunday, October 12, 2014

I Want the Angel

A few of my friends are hoping for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  I heard a radio DJ lamenting the other day the 'slim pickings' of this year's pot.  Somehow the recent nominees (and I am personally guilty for my blues Hall of Fame induction) don't have the 'weight' of Chuck Berry or Elvis or the Stones.  Kurt Cobain.  But they will hang on the wall nevertheless.  There's got to be an internet abbreviation for that.  NTL.

Same with R & B.  Somehow I don't process the Las Vegas-style spectacle of Beyonce as deserving the same category of a Sam Cooke or Otis Redding.  What was it she received at the VMAs?  The Michael Jackson Vanguard award? Entertainer of the Year.   Her husband bestowed this on her, having reserved this title previously for himself.  Awards and accolades have become cheap.  The Halls of Fame should be closed.  Let's skip a Nobel prize year.  I can't see that Patrick Modiano has the resonance of say Neruda or  Eliot or Hemingway.  Tagore.  When I was a student I anticipated this award with the greatest interest.  Now…I can't get through too many Alice Munro stories without craving some 'meat'.  It's literature 'lite'.

The night of the VMAs someone sent me a video of a Nigerian kid playing a funky home-made drum kit.  He was about 11, with true rhythmic brilliance and innovation.  I nominate him for Entertainer of the Year.  He didn't seem to have a TV and the dancers in the dirt didn't give a shit about Beyonce.  Anyway, with the Ebola crisis it would be too difficult to bring his family and friends over here.  That kid definitely has some kind of fever.  The good kind.

I met this painter at my gym.  The self-designated kind, who claims great success.  He's a health freak, so already he doesn't make it in my book where chain-smoking, self-destructive behaviors and utter disregard for dangerous toxins are kind of an industry standard.  He uses acrylics.  No turpentine or oil-based fumes for him.  Artists are dumb, he tells me.  They have no broad vision.  Isn't that the very definition of an artist?  Do we really think those Nobel laureates set out to win a Nobel Prize?  They wrote because they were compelled to write, because their demons kept them awake at night stabbing their heart and informing their lovemaking and wrecking their homelife.  Do I have any need to see this guy's paintings?  I do not.  I have already seen them, about a million times over.

How often have you read that we only use ten percent of our brains, and that is surely twice the national average? I vouch for the fact that I use one percent of my computer, but my keyboards wear out way before the cpu.  I have become 21st-century co-dependent partly because I am often unable to read the lyrics I ink-scrawl in the dark.  But have you ever watched one of those 1970's prison-escape movies?  Those guys used at least twenty percent of their brain figuring out how to make tools, and strategizing their one-shot-of-a-life.  It knocks me out.  Or when you love someone-- really, really crave and long for to the exclusion of all normal human need…what part of our brain is that testing?  Or those dogs that make it back across country, to their rightful family?  I want that GPS.

Just because some random genius existed who warranted the invention of some award category--- it doesn't mean that this is going to become an annual red-carpet event around which the media can create another fashion extravaganza.  This is what art was meant to be.  The rest of us are just hacks in an industry.  A Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig didn't have personal trainers and coaches but they hit the proverbial ball out of the park.

When I was really small, my Mom took me to see The Music Man with Robert Preston on Broadway.  I was absolutely hypnotized.  This was of course a kind of prototype of the now-standard music industry hoax.  But as I get older, I begin to see the truth in his 'think method'.  I'm essentially just a blue-collar bassist… I learned to play not from Juilliard or Berklee… but by belief.   I still play once a week in one of those NYC jams… and I hear plenty of musicians struggling with their egos--- some hacking away at some kind of mediocrity which still evades them-- some ineptly executing some idea which has validity.  But most of them are up there because they think they can play.  They watch these award shows, and they hear the non-auto-corrected performances on late-night TV and they wonder why they have a day job.  Why no one calls them for a gig.

Go to Chelsea on any Saturday.  Galleries are filled with gapers and collectors.  Prices are rarely on the wall because it is a kind of financial obscenity.  People used to ally themselves with a particular dealer or POV because they loved art and needed to understand, needed to see.  Now it is cheap and overabundant, like crude oil, and seems to have outlived its own purpose.  There is too much of it, there are no filters… like music… and we are seeing the visual version of the youtube and American Idol phenomena.  The rich artists have become whores and jump from gallery to gallery because they are a brand not a genius.

There is a kind of artist's heaven.  I believe this.  Not a hall of fame, and you will be brought there if you have created something worthy and new-- if you have had the patience and strength in this culture to have nurtured your 'egg' until a tiny creation pecked its way out…. no matter if it croaked or sang or flew or was bought or recorded or adopted by anyone.  You will be judged naked and without make-up.  An angel will be sitting on a kind of carved throne with a parchment book and will write your name with a quill and celestial blue ink.  Not gold.  Even if you have made mistakes and injected drugs and are guilty of all seven sins simultaneously.  Maybe that will actually be a prerequisite, because we are after all humans, we who 'think' and occasionally envy and then go hungry and alone into our dark cork-lined closet-rooms with the traffic noise and the banging and the ghosts and the party next door  and the perpetual winter ahead.

When my son was 2 years old, we belonged to a church which had an annual Christmas pageant/service.  All the small children dressed up as some character in the manger, and went up to the altar when their character in the story was mentioned.  So my little boy, wearing a home-made star costume, was having nothing to do with the procession… fine.  Suddenly, during the sermon,  he must have toddled up the aisle, and in front of the TV news cameras and the crowd, I see him tugging at the minister's cassock… and the great man (he was 6' 4") bends down, and my little boy who was precociously verbal and referred to himself in the 3rd person--  has suddenly connected some mental or religious dots, and announces … He needs to see the star.  So to everyone's amusement, he is lifted up to the top of the great tree and this is not enough because he says audibly and clearly, with gravity…He needs to TOUCH the star.   And he is lifted up, way up-- to touch the glittery decoration on top of the wonderful tree, after which he matter of factly toddles back to our seat at the rear of the Church to great applause.

My son, who was totally unaware of his congregational '15 minutes'  at the age of two,  became a great athlete.  Aside from the trophy-culture,  and some genuine life-ambition, he never really had the need to do anything audience or award-worthy.  But I like to think about that Christmas Eve every so often, especially watching some faceless starlet in a blingy gown coming up to some over lit stage to receive some cheap moon man.  As for me,  I want the angel.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Looking Down

Lately I have been looking down as I walk.  I find things in the street--- sometimes a quarter or an old penny-- last week an iPhone 6, someone's keys (another short story here, for another time)--something satisfying in returning lost items to their rightful owner.  Occasionally, as with wandering dogs and cats, things or pets have been 'deleted', let go.  Not everyone has that defective gene that makes us believe objects have a soul, that they emit some kind of emotional radar-- some vague longing and belong to us.  I am burdened.  I collect souls and sorrows and stories like missing children.  I found a stray dog once-- years ago.  I lived uptown, near Harlem-- was determined to find a good home for him, left him with a friend in Soho while I went on the road for 2 nights.  He'd only known me for 3 days.  I came back to the city, found that he'd escaped his soft collar and leash while tied outside a bar on Broome Street (ah, my friends' priorities…)… and there he was, curled up by the stairs of my old building, more than 100 blocks away.  He was mine.

Most things in my life have not been that clear.  I find it hard to recognize new shoes, the 'right' apartment, lunch.  Love.  But that's another novel.  A few weeks ago I read an account of a blind man who was injured in a subway accident.  When the train came in, it said, he was looking up.  That had all kinds of resonance for me-- religious, spiritual-- irony.  When you are blind I suppose it doesn't make much difference where you look.

My increasingly solitary day trips have an inner soundtrack.  I do not carry an iPod or a phone, but I maintain an inner commentary--- it's unstoppable, my voice.  Like my own personal Walt Whitman.  Of course, it began as personal encounters-- observations, mental photography.  But lately the flotsam and jetsam of objects in the street and gutters speak to me. Harlem, where cleanliness is not consistent, is a virtual Pandora's box.  Block by block---gentrification alternates with the random and spectacular pairing of oddities and tragedy.  On Lexington and 122nd, there is a men's shelter.  Sunday summer nights the tenants are chilling on the street, sprawled across those strange new metal sculptural seating installations that line the curbs there… some in pairs, some talking trash, some quietly staring off, smoking, hitting me up for a dollar or anything.  Many of them know me by now--- they know I'm not just a tourist, and I'm walking back from Pathmark where I spend my meagre food allowance as carefully as possible.  They don't bother me.  One of them always shares with me that his favorite color is black-- I like that.  None of them are looking up.

On 119th Street, by the basketball courts, a young couple is having a discussion.  The girl wants an accounting-- a reconciliation, maybe.  Her boy is not looking at her.  I could tell her, spare her hours of circuitous conversation, start her healing.  He's gone.  He's not coming back--- maybe he'll fuck her, out of boredom--- once or twice-- but he's not going to be looking.  I can always tell with guys.  I even know before they know.  This drove my husband crazy.  I was waiting, he said… I was setting a trap for him.

I do remember the way he looked at me, my young lovely husband.  I remember some woman at an art auction coming up to me---a stranger-- and saying to me-- If any man in my life ever looked at me the way that man looks at you, I would die happy.  I took things for granted then.  Love-- passion-- candlelight.  Dinner.  An endless supply.  Looking.

I also remember my baby boy.  The surprise of him… the way he looked at me with those serious eyes-- with complete trust.  So many of my girlfriends forgot to have children… and it wasn't on my priority list; it was a random act of love.  Maybe I should never say something like this, but I pity any woman who hasn't carried the weight of life and experienced the colossal pain of birth and the utter miracle of giving life, of having it look back at you.

I am sitting in Starbucks to escape the indescribable traumatic building sounds that accompany the word 'renovation'.  For us day sleepers,  the endless New York City real estate boom market has become a challenge.  I have a recurrent dream of earthquakes.  I am running, the columns are crumbling around me, the ground is trembling.  I awake and my bed is literally shaking.  9 AM promptly.  Ironically a song is on the current playlist here--- one of those indie dreary bands but something unpretentious and slow-- Everybody's looking up… and I'm looking down…  I don't know or care who it is.  Somehow this tough-kid phrase from my middle school years comes into my head-- I'm gonna fix it so you have to look up to look down.  

Everything changes.  Neighborhoods, love.  Brigitte Bardot turned 80 this week.  I watched Le Mepris a few nights ago.  Saturday night I was lucky enough to play in a concert at Lincoln Center.  The singer, a formerly gorgeous and sought-after vocal star,  now lives in a kind of homeless hotel.  Her life and story was a revelation.  She performed one of my songs and it was amazing.  The room was so quiet-- I could hear my bass notes and I played with a fragility I had previously not experienced.  Two hours later I was in Bay Ridge playing raucous garage music to a mostly drunk and rowdy audience which included a large Down's Syndrome woman who charged the stage at regular intervals during every single song.  Was one gig worth more than the other?  I don't know. I was paid exactly the same for both.

It's a bi-polar world, literally speaking.  At the risk of stating the obvious, I guess Down must be the new Up.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Eating Rice

The Ray Rice elevator assault and the harsh career sentence have been on my mind today.  Ray was the huge star of my high-school alma mater.  His adorable Grandma knows my Mom.  I have watched football with quasi-maternal passion since he became a Raven.  At 5' 8" he was not born with the physique of a typical running back.  He developed his skills, he worked at his game with fierce dedication.

My doctor was a Big Ten college all-star.  He has explained to me many times the mindset of a linebacker-- the brainwave-warping, combat-style mind-fuck the coaches beat into their players so they come out onto the field ready to take bullets, to smash into defensive walls with the intensity and drive of human tanks, with neck-breaking concussional force and no fear.  Professional football is a rough sport.  The laxity of penalties for what looks to me like near-gratuitous violence in random play is baffling.  Players are paralyzed, even killed… and who is held responsible?  No one.  

I am not defending domestic violence.  I think physical assault by either men or women is not just a sign of dysfunction but a relationship death sentence.  I also think the line between aggressive passion and injury has been blurred.  How many of our punk-rock and hip-hop romantic couples have sported casts and black eyes?  Of course, there is a double standard for men and women.  It's rare that we condemn a woman for bullying her man, for inciting a physical response which might be acceptable between two men, but always deemed inappropriate when the inciter/victim is a woman.  This is one area in which inequality among sexes rules.  

Cut to the media-hyped image of that Columbia student carrying her mattress around as her senior thesis.  Don't get me started, our beloved Joan Rivers would comment.  First of all, in my day a thesis was something scholarly and important--- a major piece of research which prepares you for future theses and books-- something which makes a contribution to available literature and breaks new intellectual ground.  Granted what now passes as high art, performance art-- is a sad minor reflection of the intentions of the serious contemporary artists who established the 'canon'.  The fact that this is passed off as thesis material would make me think hard before I'd shell out the kind of tuition Columbia charges.  I wonder how desperately this girl competed for her acceptance to an urban Ivy League school-- the very one whose reputation she is now hell-bent on challenging.

Again, I'm not trivializing the trauma of date-rape.  But is her personal vendetta against this man really the responsibility of the University?  Should an institution be pressured to eject another student because this attention-mongering person can't legally handle her own affair?  Sex is an adult-ish activity.  There is always some element of personal choice in consensual sex; some boundaries crossed or loosened.  A college student is presumed to be mature enough to make some personal decisions.  Whether and where she failed to control the consequence of her action…. is another issue.  But how is an academic umbrella institution responsible for the stupid action of one of its students, based on testimony of a mishap which she'd declined to report for several months.  She certainly isn't shy.  Obviously a bit of a red flag there.  I just find her annoying and juvenile.  Why doesn't she take her mattress to Africa and demonstrate against serious violations against women?

Recently I was friended on Facebook by someone whose name was vaguely familiar.  He's a well respected music producer who had massive success in the 1980's.  I had a nauseating recognition when I looked at old photos.  In the mid 1980's, this same man had asked me to meet him to discuss my charming and original cassette of home-recorded songs which had somehow found their way to his massive desk.  Not only flattered but thrilled, I went to see him at his 5-star midtown hotel where he explained that because he was expecting an important conference call, we'd have to meet in his private suite.   The guy had a gorgeous wife and kids--- I dismissed any trepidation… and ended up, 2 hours later, with my clothes ripped and tattered, vomiting in the elevator on the way down.  I lost my keys, my wallet, and my musical innocence that night, even though I managed to fight him off.  I ended up moving to the UK and never again submitted my music or had any vision of pop-star or songwriting success.  Did I petition his label or his major company to dismiss him?  Did I file charges or even tell anyone outside of my husband (with whom he'd worked, the asshole!)?  I did not.  I vowed I would never again meet anyone in a hotel room without love or witnesses or body guards.  

This week I've been reading one of Vargas-Llosa's political novels 'Death in the Andes' and in a pivotal scene, a pedestrian young guard bursts in on one of the top military officers who is beating the crap out of a woman while she screams and begs for mercy.  The guard kills the officer, kidnaps the woman in a car where she proceeds to scream and protest that she loved the officer--- he was her lover and she begged him to beat her violently as sexual foreplay.   Irony.  

I don't know what happened in that Columbia student's room.  I do know my son had a few psychotic girlfriends in college who threatened to slit their wrists if he didn't spend the night with them, and then reported him as a deadbeat Dad because he failed to pay for a pregnancy test for one of them who happened to be on the pill.  It was trouble.  Especially when two of them teamed up and went to his Dean.  But it was trouble for us-- the family.  I dealt sympathetically with the girls and chastised my son appropriately.  I didn't take it to the University.  Hopefully, given this generation's short memory, the facebook world has long dismissed charges, and the girl, after a few other dramatic incidents, changed schools and moved on.  But in general--- expecting your parents, or your affiliated parental-designated institution, to take a position in your personal misfortunes--- seems not just juvenile but absurd.  

I also don't know what happened outside of Ray Rice's elevator; there were unfortunately no cameras in mine.  But what I don't understand is why this is the jurisdiction of the NFL.  Domestic abuse is all too common among football players, partially for the way they are programmed to compete; partially because they are often victims of women who pursue athletes the way they pursue rockstars-- -for money, for the thrill of being next to the limelight, for the drama.  Some of these players are boys who have spent so much of their lives learning plays and practicing, adopting a 'violent' competitive mindset-- -they are relatively unequipped to deal with relationships.  I have read umpteen psychologists' assessments of the financially dependent abused woman refusing to testify against her mate.  But Janay is the mother of their child.  She is his wife, as well as the designated victim, and she is in his corner.  I feel she has been denied a voice.  I am not condoning his behavior, but I am condemning the public 'stoning' of what I consider a private affair.

Just as we all have our constitutional rights, we have the right of choice.  If Rihanna loves Chris Brown after all, so be it.  If we all listened to our mothers and married that nice boring boy next door at 21, what guarantee is there that he will not become an alcoholic or a wife-beater?  Besides, there would be a lot less great sex in our world.  And without instagram and youtube, we might have retained our constitutional right to Privacy, and maybe, just maybe… Ray Rice would have learned a lesson, managed his affairs, and his wife and daughter would have kept their VIP stadium seats and happily witnessed a winning season.

As for the Mattress Girl, she needs to re-read The Princess and the Pea… and when she describes with great poise to the media how she shakes in her bed every day… I give her an F on her thesis, a D in Drama, a C for acting, and I quake in my chair here realizing I have spent precious minutes on her pathetic vendetta when there are serious social and human problems.  Since the priorities of higher education have apparently evaded her tiny petty world-view… perhaps a 2-semester suspension would better serve her here.  Let her eat Rice.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Dog Day (for my mother, who no longer reads…and perhaps never did...)

Morning is static in the untuned radio of your day...
It is reunion time, the 40th anniversary
And you cannot find the station
Months seem out of sequence
You prefer your calendar pages white
A bird outside
Could be just some form of tinnitus

A woman’s mother will not let go until
She has her own child
The blessing is a wound
You may fear that you will not love this baby
And it is with relief that you begin to worry

We seek the missing where there is none
Cut what once was whole
Juvenate before we rejuvenate
As birth is the beginning of loss...
The child is a bandage
A stranger
The first thing my mother could not claim

Memory is shorter these days
Does not contain words like dreaming
Loose and innocence
Surely you will discard mornings, collect sunsets
Thinking it must be Always Safe to Shoot
At Things with Holes
Helping the voices to a kiss
Let the wrong one in, they say
Some days you Forget how to walk up stairs...
Some days you remember this is good
With 3 m’s

Forget the last exam
Discarded postcards
Stamps look unfamiliar
And cheap denominations are
Without meaning
Your belief needs bifocals
Just to see the windshield crack
After all, it could be your eyes
Your glasses…
You must check to feel which you are wearing
After all
A whole day can go by without speaking
Perhaps no one would listen

You slip into a room where someone reads a poem
The author used to stare
Pursue you to the door
Procure your number...
If you had a dog you might forget to walk it
Some days these things worry you
Some days you worry that they do not
Next week it might be Christmas
Holidays pile up like ex-boyfriends
Faces of men you might have slept with, might have looked at
From a desk on Parent-teacher night

The dirt is now forgivable...
Dust reassures that weeks still pass
Windows are troubling, or perhaps mirrors
The softness of your breasts surprises; no one has touched you this week and you are not one to touch yourself
Bloody but you cannot say stained
When did you cease being shocked by the grinds and  spatters of last night’s fiasco
in the afternoon light
The mail tells you
een summoned to You have been summoned to testify for solitude
Opening the envelope brings
The vague ghost of someone’s spit
Adds  to the suspicion that someone has vomited
And hidden in your downstairs
Which has spread to the bedroom

Perhaps you’ll borrow a dog to sniff out the source
But you are afraid he will dislike youtude:
Or worse, obey the unpretty version you’ve become
Despising your fear
Ignore the stench...
Not just overnight
You have become a sort of weed
Poverty seeps in like damp
You cannot wash it out
It has changed me, you apologize
To the dog who has not come
No matter how many times you whistled his name
Barked his pride and prayed for rain

Thursday, August 14, 2014

..Die He Must...

My father never really loved me. Maybe at some point he had some pride in my adolescent achievement; after all, I graduated with high honors from a top ivy college, turned down a scholarship to Harvard-- -stuff parents can 'bank'.  But person to person?  He couldn't look me in the eye, we both cringed if a goodbye hug was required, and I used to sigh with great relief if he worked late and couldn't make a school play or performance.

Teachers would always comment on how handsome he was; that was useless for me.  In fact I used to wish he'd never come home so my mother could marry someone who wouldn't ask me if I was a moron when I had a question about something.  I didn't feel hurt or sorry; for years I thought that's what fathers did.  I learned to use books.  They were reliable, available, kind and patient.

Maybe I grew up and rejected men who doted on me; it didn't feel right.  Of course at some point I realized that shame and alcohol had a lot to do with our family dynamics and my penchant for truth seeking was an unintentional finger pointing at him.  He's 95 now.  I can feel him squirm if he picks up the phone when I call my demented Mom, old cranky fuck that he is.  Once or twice he actually blurted out 'if you wanna give me a present, don't ever call me.'  The honesty is a relief… then every once in a while he says something almost 'paternal'.  He actually likes my son.  He's a boy.  He's not an unmarried poet who plays bass guitar in downtown clubs.

Wednesday is my day to get groceries in Harlem; something always on special at Pathmark and I get to absorb some uptown culture.  Pathmark in summer is my version of Coney Island.  It's massive, it's crowded, it's filled with colorful displays and distractions, most of which I'd rather observe than partake of.  There's tons of exposed skin and strange fashion statements… and at any given moment, a good percentage of the crowd is not intending to buy or participate.  Some are taking in the moderately cool air, some are consuming anything they did not intend to purchase… gaping, butt-watching, hand slapping and commentating.  There is plenty of narrative, family drama, the PA 'barker' beckoning the shoppers to sample the specials and bargains, old ladies shuffling and squeezing things, muttering, judging and spitting.  In front of me on the huge snaking line, a young family with 2 giant carts loaded with frozen entrees and french fries, boxed pies and cakes, gallons of juice and punch, pounds of hotdogs, pancake mix, canned icing---  the usual… and a virtual team of kids--- the girls packing and helping-- the 8 year old boy in glasses asking his Mom constantly -- how do you make ice cream cones, what's a ingredient… can you put a motor on the cart… until she whacked him…'No more fuckin questions, you hear me?'  The kid didn't seem hurt; he just leaned on the window sill and looked out at 125th street and fidgeted and talked to himself a little.

Of course the white liberal over-educated humanist wanted to pick him up and take him to a library-- I mean, I'm not predicting he's going to grow up and become an angry gangsta or a nerd who gets the shit kicked out of him at Promise Academy.  Maybe he'll be a teacher.  My own mother wisely bought-- from her housekeeper's handsome strapping football-playing son--- a set of Collier's Encyclopedia.  I could look everything up.  Jerusalem.  Jesus, Mary and Joseph.  Penis.  I no longer needed to fear my father's impatient wrath.  I was saved.

Back in Carnegie Hill this evening, one of the investment banker fathers walking behind his little girl… barely 3, in her little Jacadi frock and the Bonpoint shoes, with her pink my-little-pony and her neat pigtails…Are you sure?, he is saying to her?  Are you SURE?  And she is saying… mmh hmMM! with the little upswing… and just as I pass them, he actually says… 'and WHAT IF SHE ISN'T?…. '

What if she isn't?  What kind of twisted manipulative question is this to ask a 3-year old-- to plant doubt and fear and anxiety and all shades of grey in a tiny mind where everything is not only black and white but pink and blue… Is this what his boss asked him today when he put in a huge margin call betting that the market is going to drop tomorrow….And what if it doesn't?  Your Stepford wife will leave you for a richer man and your tiny daughter will imprison you weekends until she is old enough for boarding school?

We are born with eyes and ears and a mouth, the lucky among us.  We trust the people who hold us and swaddle us and feed us.  We smile at them and helplessly let them pick us up and put us in vehicles and cribs and baskets.  And some people pick us up and scold us when no one is looking--- they take our toys and touch us inappropriately and show us things we don't want to see and tell us things that give us lifetime nightmares.  Some of these people are even our parents or relatives.  And like random soldiers in a brutal war, some go home unscathed,  and some are blown up.  Some lose limbs and some become emotional amputees.  What happens to the Robin Williamses and the Heath Ledgers and the Philip Seymour Hoffmans that opens up a tiny fissure of doubt or fear which compels them to laugh and entertain and compensate and develop extraordinary talents that do little to cover the gaping wound that no one sees?

I know parents who, while bragging about their children, I can see in a nano-second when there is no love here.  I have seen these kids overdose, binge drink, do rehab and jail time.  And some of them become presidents and rockstars.  Actors.  Or men like my Dad who are heroes and wonderful human beings to someone but are emotionally cruel to some of the women in his family… yes, these people had their own wounds and damages… I try to understand.   And I pray none of my eccentricities ever hurt my own kids in some cavalier and branding way.

We read and watch footage of our beloved Robin Williams on every network… the great irony of the brilliant comedian--- the sad clown.  We have read this story before.  And knowing in this toxic media world that no secret would be kept sacred, that no detail would be spared… and still, he couldn't find the will to NOT go through with this…. well, we are chilled to the bone in the August summer.  Some of us feel the undertow every day of our lives.  We hold our ears against the screams of the Sirens and we struggle to make it to another day because even though the darkness beckons, we hesitate to leave this legacy of wreckage for the few that actually might love us.

Personally I thank my father for giving me an inroad to these souls, to the dark side.  And as much as we feel the shiver of this passing, we feel a tiny bit of relief…he is free,  we have a little vicarious 'what if' moment… and we mourn and go on. .. with our talents and our sadness and our curse of compassion and our gaping hearts…and we ask questions that are not answerable in any Encyclopedia or bottle or needle or warm bed.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Crosstown Traffic

Last week I found myself in front of the television-- not just once but twice-- watching the film "Traffic".  This is a hefty investment of late-night time… and it's not the first time I have re-viewed it.  It is not the acting or the story per se, although the treatment is intriguing and Benicio del Toro has always been one of my favorites (ditto the Brian Eno soundtrack choices).  I have to be honest-- my favorite scenes are those of Erika Christensen and her friends getting high, getting fucked up, in that sort of innocent high-school way you discover drugs…and it is not just a world you enter, but a kind of baptism-- a conversion.

Sex in high school can be awkward and ambivalent and there was the threat of pregnancy or commitment or infuriating your best friend by hooking up with the boy she loves who really loves you even though you love some college boy who is unattainable.  The temptation of letting someone's passion spill over you is irresistible and you let it happen.  But drugs… it's the ultimate Hall Pass.  No guilt, no fear, no lines to blur.  You push a button or pop a pill, and you are inter-planetary.  You can fly… you can float-- you can  dance-- you are your own future-- you are everywhere and everything.  Music is 3-D, 3-D is 4-D.  Boys are sexy and sex is slow and loose the way you dream it.

Drugs when you are young are like freedom.  They are recess, they are unlocked doors and windows and no rules.  But most of all--- they let you love yourself, or they let you let someone else love you in the way you can't in regular teenage life because you hate looking at yourself in the mirror some days.  You hate your life and especially your parents and you haven't yet realized this will have absolutely nothing to do with your adult life if you are smart and brave.  But when you are high, for just a minute, your room is not your world and your face is so not your face.

And I apologize to my niece and my son and all the kids and adults I have seen struggle to manage the massive attraction of substances, and I have not used anything for decades and do not necessarily have the desire.  But watching this film-- -and others-- does not leave me with a message of relief or wisdom.  And of course, like a permanent vacation, Cancun or Paradise gets boring; witness Adam and Eve and just about every fairytale and Biblical parable where reality wins.  Even Hollywood angels have chosen to return to earth and suffer mortal torments.  Not to mention that the mechanism of addiction leaves a user little choice; it is get high or be sick.

Some days the pain of sobriety-- if you happen to be a sensitive person--- is brutal.  I am one of those people who get flagged by Seventh Day Adventists and street hustlers.  Beggars smell me coming.  I can't refuse them.  I feel pricked and guilty and sheepish and human.  I curse my good fortune even though I can scarcely fill my pantry these days, have gaffers tape on my boots.  I come home from a 4 AM train ride feeling smaller-- a little beaten up and with that teenage mirror-angst.  Who the fuck am I and why should I give money for food to people who smell like alcohol and body rot?  Is it superstition?  A test?  Fear of meeting the Indian goddess of luck who stalks the earth in various disguises and should you refuse her will curse you with bad fortune until you die?

As an adult, Love was maybe my drug of choice.  Music--- playing at a volume that challenges all your senses-- almost pushes you across the border… but not quite.  The song ends, and you return.  You are left with a little aura-- maybe a little more attitude-- that Fuck You thing if you play rock and roll.  You jump off a stage and feel no pain.  But it's not the same kind of high.

So I watch this film and the teenage daughter getting fucked up with what I confess is a kind of fascination or envy.  Of course former users or addicts will never recreate their first innocent experiences, no matter how much we fantasize.  And the fictional girl in the film doesn't have to worry about college loans or car insurance or parents that don't love her, like most of us… and on the surface, she hasn't really ruined her life the way some of us have.

Walking down the street today it seemed the scent of marijuana is everywhere… even in Central Park in the secluded little uptown copse where I write songs occasionally.  Smoke always made me dull-- not my drug of choice.  Thinking about the exits and near-exits I've witnessed this year-- inconclusive suicide, self-euthanising, and then the ones desperate to hang on who were just dropped by the universe…  and passing my local junkie 'clique' enjoying their late-afternoon 'nod', one of them hovering on the curb like he's about to dive off-- eyes closed, mouth open… I'm more than middle-aged…I'm lucky to have a couple of quarters to give the guy who sleeps on the church steps… my local homeless guy knows where I shop and what I buy and he stopped hitting me up long ago.  His hair is perfect, by the way; he could play himself in a film.  He shows me a wrinkled tabloid photo of the new Wonder Woman.  She's dressed in black now.  Even the name doesn't sound right anymore… Wonder Bread, Wonder Boys, Wonder Wheel.  Heroin(e).

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Death Without Interruptions

I am trying to make friends with Death.  He has been flirting with way too many of my friends and his recent moves to consummate a few of these relationships have forced me to rethink my strategy.  While we are generally reassured that these incidents come in threes, there was yet a fourth last week.   Admittedly, my 'stepmother' the artist did take her own life.  She cheated Death, in her way, and he did not like that.  He expects to beat you at his game, not have you put yourself in checkmate and deprive him of his victory rush.  So he pulled another trick?  The fact is, he lost count, long ago.  He has way too many fingers.

If you've been reading my essays, you know that I've seen him in Chelsea.  Summer heat doesn't phase Death; under wraps his cold breath gives him away.  He likes the galleries; he's rather vain and is sure to see himself in a painting or two on any given day.  Andy liked to include him-- a shadow, a symbol or a doppelgänger; maybe it pissed him off.  He's in all the trendy fashion houses, in one form or another, and as we all know--- he has great taste in music.  He is a patient lover: he can be violent and cruel, or he can be gentle and invisible.  But he will eventually come to all of us, whether we embrace him or fear him, whether we court him or evade him; he will come.

Personally he fucks with my head.  I feel responsible; I feel guilty and inadequate.  He reminds me of my father who try as I might, does not love me as a daughter.  Okay… my cousin was old--- he was ill and had come to a boundary; his passing was a blessing.  My stepmother?  She feared her end.  She was an artist and she wanted an audience, she wanted recognition; she wanted a guaranteed choir of mourners.  Death taunted her-- held a cruel mirror before her vanity.  She'd once painted for her lovers and now she'd outlived every single one.  I was a lone voice for her; my love and admiration was not enough.  She was cranky and bitter in her last weeks, and the truth is, I was avoiding her.  She scolded me; I reminded her of failure.  Even at the end, she left a small pile of envelopes, and I waited in vain for mine.  No sentimentality; her only request, as always, is for me to disperse her art-- to find collectors, to enhance her legacy.  I am the designated 'sweeper' of her leavings.  Nothing more.  I could have pimped for her. Maybe she would have stuck it out.  Sometimes Death makes you a star; sometimes you don't even make the New York Times obituaries unless you pay.

My lovely drummer who passed…. he used to bring me small trinkets from his trips-- purses, tiny elephants from Thailand, cloth fans and memorabilia.  At some point last year I cleaned my closet and donated bags of these things.  So now I feel guilty.  I searched my closet for a souvenir--- nothing.  I somehow brought this on, with my callow attitude toward his sweetness and sentimentality.  After all, he was young-- who could anticipate I would outlive him?  I am guilty.

And that woman in Chelsea--- it was serendipitous that we had met through a mutual friend.  Who could have conceived that she would chase her dog into the arms of Death in the form of a garbage truck? Her dog?  I forgot to ask.  I doubt he feels guilty.  But I do.  I wish we'd never met.

At my cousin's funeral his children remembered poignant moments.  They were loved, had wonderful lives with and without him.  It was perfect.  I wept.  I thought of my own father-- -the one who can't bear the sound of my voice, the mention of my name-- -for Death knows what reason.  I can't think of a single tender moment.  My sister methodically stole my packet of M & Ms every day for years.  I willingly gave up my toys, my allowance-- I took the blame for every bit of family mischief.  She has the birthright-- whether it is fair or unfair, I am glad to stay out of the family spotlight.  My father owes me an apology.  Besides marrying rock musicians and turning down a Harvard Law scholarship… what did I do to him?  I offended his legacy.  I failed to enhance his family with suitable accomplishments.  I work in bars.  I was a single mother.  This is the 21st century.  But he is ashamed.  I did what I could; I paid him back.  I gave them the art I'd lovingly collected through my friends.  I paid my sister and her husband and put her kids through college while I took an oath of poverty and devotion to music.  I am a Goth nun.  You'd think I blackmailed them.  They have weddings and parties and exchange gifts.  My son got a check for $100 for his combined 21st birthday, Christmas and college graduation.  We have many nights gone hungry  Not even a card.  A folded check in a small envelope.

I have dedicated songs to my father; I post his military accolades on my Facebook page.  I honor him in the only way that I can.  None of this matters.  He will take his hatred to the grave and I will not have a seat at his funeral.  Whatever he thinks I did, I did not do.  Death-- tell him.  Whisper.  I go to funerals, I take care of my friends.  I'm guilty.  I give money to homeless people and split my last-dollar hotdog today with a hungry man in the street.  I never stole from him or lied to him or cheated.  I won all those awards.  I even bought him a computer once with money I won and he complained.  So I give up.  Death, compared to my father, is just.  He spared me a few times-- he's whispered in my ear and sat on my bed through a couple of nights…and mysteriously as he entered, in the morning he was gone.

I finally got the nerve to visit my stepmother's apartment; the very room where she put a plastic bag over her head and inhaled lethal quantities of helium several days ago.  Kind of a stagey exit, but painless and effective.  It looked exactly the same; the bed was made, the Saramago I loaned her on the nightstand, the smell of helium was nowhere.  Death had vanished-- no wagging fingers, no morbid reminders.  Just the art, like an albatross--- like guilt mirrors around the room.  But I'll rise to the challenge.  Death has no wish to participate.  It's too late for dying young, he coolly whispered to me as I lay awake the other night… and then, dressed like the 1961 Elvis, he left the room.