Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Letter

Priorities shift on rainy nights.  People drop money with more frequency.  They are rushing and careless and the sound of the rain masks the sound of things falling.  Fewer people show up at their gym.  They park cars carelessly, they drink more; they eat more.  It is a bad time to make a lasting decision; especially an emotional decision.

The sound of passing cars on a rainy night always reminds me of waiting.  I was glad tonight to get home early; I walked back not caring what the rain did to my hair or my shoes.  I took my time, picked up a few coins from the sidewalk, petted a few miserable neighborhood dogs who leaned sheepishly against their walkers, regretting that they asked to be taken out.  At a Madison Avenue corner, a coat and hat was draped over a mailbox.  As I got closer, I realized there was a body inside.  It moved, and I asked if I could help.  The man, who was not more than 35, waved me on-- reeked of whiskey.  Sick, maybe--- or just too drunk to walk.   Waiting, maybe.  For a text, for a car, for a bus… for someone who wasn't coming.  I stood under an awning and watched; he nearly fell into the road a couple of times, and managed to hoist himself up onto the steel curve of the box, like a human back.  The Federal Government helping someone in ways they never intended.  I couldn't leave; I was writing all versions of his sad story-- the diagnosis,  the long and unbearable last days of his terminally ill wife; maybe he'd just come from the hospital-- -the final night.  Or he'd lost his job, his girlfriend had had enough-- his kids told him he's a loser-- his boss caught him in an insider trading scheme…

When I was young and newly married in London, it rained for all 30 days of my first month.  The quiet of our flat, compared to the constant sounds of New York City, was oppressive and strange for me.  My husband was a journalist and worked late; I found myself cooking and waiting like a doll-wife in a doll-house.  I had no friends and even the telephone felt awkward in my hand.  I knew I'd never stay-- it all felt so unreal for me-- and yet I was determined to stay and learn how to play the wife.  It was both sad and happy when my husband came home; he always felt like a stranger.  I could never have married anyone more familiar because my whole concept of marriage was so outside anything that felt like 'me'.   And yet, I loved the way he looked, the way he spoke, and treated me-- like a television sitcom newlywed.  He would have a drink and tell me about his day.  We would go to bed and make love, and he would sleep while I lay awake listening to the rain and the quiet, trying to 'place' myself in the strangeness of the new city.

Of course I eventually realized we were both playing house, and despite a mutual passion, we never really 'crossed over'.  I missed my life.  I missed laughing with my New York friends.  I felt like a foreigner in the city where everyone spoke my language but no one seemed to understand me.  I missed my husband-- even though he was there, and was attentive and perfect, outside of a few drinks too many.  He felt my discomfort and began to panic-- to worry, to agonize, and then to stray.  I was relieved.  It gave me a reason to leave, even though I was already pregnant with his son.

I came back to New York with my huge stomach and the terrifying prospect of motherhood, and then I missed him even more.  I began to realize there was nowhere, ever, from that point on, where I would ever feel 'right';  that the clarity of the distant past is maybe elusive-- and maybe it was never there, although we are all sure of our first loves, and maybe even our second-- of our first heartbreak, and the pure joy of winning something.  But I still couldn't stay,  and whatever tragic consequences I've suffered-- the misgivings, the regrets, the bad dreams and the missing-- all the missing--- well, I am responsible, at least partially.

Tonight there are more sirens than usual; this is a rain-related phenomenon, too, I think.  I am tempted to go back out and see if one of these is for my mailbox man, but I stop and convince myself that a person who couldn't manage to face her own fairytale when it was there cannot possibly unravel the unhappy ending of someone else's.

I was born during hard winter.  I was always relieved that I wouldn't have to face a rainy birthday; it was either cold and sunny or snowing, which is a soft blessing, and not a disappointment.  I feel safe here at the moment; even the early morning birds are not singing, not warning me that I should have slept and I haven't.

So maybe the mailbox guy had to to vomit and needed an anchor.  Maybe he needed a short nap.  Maybe he just couldn't face his nagging wife and kids after a long day, and her resentment that he'd taken the time to have a few when she had slaved over a meal and bla bla bla.  I never stuck around long enough to get there; I feared someone looking at me the way the mailbox man looked at me when I asked if I could help-- with that screwed up crooked face asking silently who the fuck I thought I was to insert myself in his rainy night.

There's a woman on the 6th floor with a bulgy eye who is hostile and a little crazy.  She is bitter and has persecution fantasies and calls the police on her neighbors.  She doesn't pay her rent and defends herself in court and win or lose costs our building thousands.   I am kind to her but tonight in the elevator she accused me of conspiring with the members of the Coop Board.  The rain is affecting her.  I start thinking she could audition for a zombie B-film.  I want to ask her to mail a letter for me.  That makes me smile, and she turns up the volume until I get out on my floor.

Maybe the mailbox guy was one of those visiting angels who will vanish.  Maybe I wasn't supposed to see him; maybe it was a mirage-- a cartoon character who shouldn't have crossed over.  I am home now, getting messages from a booking agent who wants Blues.  Blues, he says.  Yeah, that works for me.  So we'll give him blues.  John Lee Hooker used to sing something about a letter.  He never learned to read or write.  I know I'll never look at that mailbox the same way.  It's become a symbol, the way that most things in our lives become when we just have had enough of what is real or what we want to be real, and we are tired of waiting and tired of missing, and all we have is the slithery sound of wet tires on asphalt and a pair of old boots drying like tired dogs in the dawn half-light.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Not-so-sour Grapes

I woke up today from one of those post-apocalyptic nightmares where you are stuck in some barren landscape in a precariously fragile building which is the only protection you have from seeping white slime or fallout or whatever form the horror takes in this particular version of the dream.  I suppose this is some left-over haunting from the Cold War era where we were constantly being instructed in safety protocol 'in the event of…'  Generally my personal dream features a dog I've forgotten, or a child; this morning, my baby boy was missing---I was panicked, and somehow found him asleep in his little trundle bed, all clean and fresh in little bunny pajamas… untouched by the hoarfrost of melted clouds.

Then you transition into the actual circumstances of your life-- -the stacks of books,  guitars needing attention, the quilts and laundry, the unrecorded songs, the piles of lyrics, unwashed dishes… and somehow these loose ends are welcoming.  The tranquility of my familiar personal chaos comforts me.
On my voicemail a message from an old schoolmate who has decided after 2 unhappy marriages and 30 years of Wall Street and country clubs, that we should make a 'go' of things.  He is tired of the debutantes who at our age are looking grandmotherly anyway, and sick of the socialite bankers and the Hamptons.  Manhattan Bohemia beckons, and he has dialed my number.

Somehow I turned on one of those highbrow talk shows tonight and there is not just the billionaire husband but the it-boy son of my most beloved college roommate.  Apparently her choice of spouse was much more successful than either of mine, although I remind myself that she had sort of a nervous breakdown and I visited her in an upscale mental hospital in Connecticut where she began to wean herself from our slightly warped friendship.  I also remember her calling me at one point more recently to tell me her daily pile of antidepressants was becoming larger than an average dog's dinner-- bragging that she had a closet filled with mink coats and couldn't get off her bed.  Going further back,  her remarks that her fiancee looked exactly like me, that we could be twins--- which was not far from the truth--- so I looked carefully at the screen to see how my male counterpart weathered the years.   He was snide and smarmy, actually--- and here he is, delivering this rehearsed little aphorism which is about as profound as mis-translated Plato… and Charlie is giving him that extra gracious smile he gives these hedge fund assholes because he saw The Music Man when he was a kid and knows all about con men and 'the think method' which is maybe a little charming when applied to a kid's marching band, but not when these toxic pillars of mediocrity are stripping their country of a future so they can line their fat uninspired pockets.  I'm beginning to think the guy is truly pathetic and not even smart and has some kind of desperate power fantasy or maybe even on an early road to dementia.  Did I miss something Sr. Massimo Unimpressivissimo?  I have to admit the son had her lovely eyelashes and was cute while smug for his age, obviously not bothered by the fact that his Dad had propelled him financially from wannabe to 'is'.

No wonder my son--- the same one who slept so peacefully through my dream holocaust-- resents me.  He has to compete with these excessively privileged people.  And I have to admit, there is the faintest  twinge of some unkind emotion that flits across my face, like a passing car headlight… and then I assess the sex appeal factor of this guy which is a very low number, even factoring in the massive wallet size and the triple-floor penthouse in a very exclusive CPW building with a spectacular view.

I have no view--- well, some brick walls, a few pigeons, a century-old courtyard below… a modicum of reflected light during a brief period every afternoon.  Then again, no one is pointing a gun at me or hacking into my mobile for the latest inside trading trickery or media stunts because I don't even have a cell phone.

I once dated a celebrity and found myself literally suffocating at the dinners and looking at my watch.  I hated the dresses he bought me, returned the jewelry and although the free screenings were okay, everyone seemed just a little bit smaller in person, and except for some really lewd remarks whispered to me by one of my favorite writers who had a serious drinking problem, very few laughs.  Celebrity sex gets boring too… and you can't just go get yourselves a big mac at 3 AM without someone taking his photo.  It was essentially too high-maintenance and I fantasized about going home with cute Irish bartenders from sleazy Hell's Kitchen pubs and sleeping in their unwashed sheets on a lumpy mattress on the floor of a tenement.  Until I did.  The celebrity was furious, but the bartender and I were very happy for a time.  It was the perfect ending to a fractured New York fairy tale.

So while very few would envy my life, I somehow pitied my roommate tonight.  I doubt she worries about her social security, but those of us without a consistent mate have really conducted a lifelong experiment in love and its various manifestations.  I've had plenty of men in many forms, and drawn many conclusions.  Her financial footprint is certainly larger, and her possessions could perhaps fill a large mansion but I will leave a huge pile of un-pirated intellectual property I've created and written during all those evening hours when she's sitting in the front row at fashion week and attending functions and dinners, and getting styled and regaled and made-up.  I've seen fewer plays and films but read more books and borrow from the library.  She doesn't play guitar and can't even carry a tune, as I recall.

Tomorrow I will return the phone message of my Wall Street friend and tell him I can't make the dinner, or the weekend, because somehow in my version of Cinderella, I refuse the glass slipper and still kiss the prince.  I will ride my C train back home to the dust and the bare floors and toast my old guitars and the rising sun and drink my first coffee as it sets.  Amen.

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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Last night some featury not-quite-coherent bit of news surfaced on my radar, alleging staggering statistics of on-campus rapes among Columbia freshman.   So I read a little further, with my own prejudices and skepticism, and learned the alleged perps are not predatory intruders but matriculating Columbia athletes and students.

As a mother, I know freshmen don't have the best judgment.  They are prone to the excessive drinking and partying that is part of the 'independence' declaration of college life.  Suddenly kids are forced to  set curfews and boundaries and I remember occasionally wishing I could blame my mother when I lacked the courage to say no to one thing or another.  Sex?  Pretty much a passionate 2-thumbs up, but another generational can of worms back then.  It wasn't until I was a young adult, pursuing a career, that I really encountered tough boundary issues and power ploys.

My son at the age of 19 was accused on Facebook of being a 'deadbeat dad'.  This by another sophomore who had skipped a day or 2 of the pill and wanted him to pay for her over-the-counter pregnancy test.  She used to call my house at least once a week in a coke-induced panic-- her apartment was on fire, someone was trying to break in-- -anything to require his presence at 3 AM, and to spend the night.  It was like gender-reversed rape when he'd arrive, exhausted and emotionally bullied by her threats and schemes.

In no way would I ever suggest that any of these Columbia women had not been assaulted; what does confuse me, in most of the cases I read--- is where is their head, their thinking, their 'sisterhood'?  I grew   up in an era where pervy uncles and drunk friends of our parents would cross lines and make suggestions.  Pediatricians touched us inappropriately and told us 'the boys are going to love this' when you get a little older.  Our bosses and mentors in our first jobs pressed their suited groins against us and groped us under the desk.  Did we tell our mothers?  Our teachers?  We did not.  But we told each other.  Our friends, our cousins--- whomever-- we told each other-- we confided, we confessed, we exchanged  humiliations and nightmares.  And we grew collectively stronger.  Once we shared our fears, we could look at them and decide what we could do.  We developed a collective jury of our intimate female peers.

We all knew who liked rough sex, we all knew who kissed and told and who disrespected our preferences.  And we knew what to do about it.  Of course there was always a girl among us who was attacked or assaulted without warning.  But we backed her.  We went to the police if we had to; we held each other's hands for abortions, we raised money and protected each other.  We navigated the free-love era with our hearts and brains and one another.  We learned to give love and take love, to try things and not fear them, and to trust our instincts.  I'm not sure, in this Kardashian age, where my son and his girlfriends had seen the Paris Hilton tape a year or two after Bambi,  that there is the sense of a 'net' among women.

Mothers in 21st-century New York City are pretty protective.  We interview and interrogate and hover.  No one is going to touch our baby with impropriety.  Doctors are required to have a female PA present during exams.  We have discussed sex so much our kids don't want to know what we knew.  They want to do it and have it and they want to act like rappers and ho's when they feel like it.  For all the soft porn and T & A & P everywhere we look, sex and love seem just a little cheap.  Girls are desperate and often date the B list.  Women my age are lonely and court guys they wouldn't have given a light at a bar in 1985.   Most guys who take advantage of women do so because no one stops them.  No one confronts them.  Not a tribune of Columbia administrators, but the girl they dissed and her girlfriends.  In my day, that guy wouldn't have lived to tell the tale without a beating from someone…and he wouldn't have dared repeat his offense.  Not in the same geographic hub.  For all the face booking and internet gossip and instagram posting,  how the f--  is the sisterhood failing women?

I am about to do a 'women-in-rock' fundraiser for anti-violence and domestic abuse.  We conscious warriors who have often waded through catcalls and ass-pinching to play our music with pride. We swam upstream to survive the sexist prejudices in a male-dominated musical world.  We support each other, we share, we talk, we rock and we are loud.  My message to the Columbia freshman-- stop blaming the administration for failing you, and start showing up for each other.  Use your brain and instincts and avoid men who are assholes.  An ounce of prevention, etc… protect your assets and stop spreading yourselves so thin.  You are not victims-- you are smart enough to manage your life.  You have a goddam voice and you can arm yourself with a few lessons in self defense.  Be generous with your sisters and see where you are and get out while you are safe.  And don't be afraid to love the ones who love and deserve your righteous body.  That is our legacy and our just dessert.  Amen.

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