Saturday, May 31, 2014


Another funeral yesterday.  They seem to come in waves.  For the wife--- the kids, the mother--- this is a life-shaping devastation.   For the rest of us, the mourners--- it is more temporary. We go out into the spring sunlight, return to our lives, speak a little less that day.  I try to dress badly for funerals.  Okay, I admit-- these days I don't really have to try--- this seems to be my mode of default.  It just feels so inappropriate to put on make-up and a nice dress.  I'm sure someone processes this as disrespect, but for me-- observing the blow-dried fashionistas--- it just seems wrong.  People forgive you-- -the rock and roller, etc.  It is okay to be 'odd'.  These people have been your audience.

I've been re-reading Faulkner-- Absalom, Absalom.  I was processing the tough version of mourning in the Civil War-ravaged South where the women were violently widowed, and the tragic figure of Judith,
in a primitive dress sewn from whatever re-cycled cloth was available--  betrothed in innocence to her half-brother, becomes a widow and a pallbearer within hours.  I would want to walk forever, feeling the unbearable weight of that rough wooden box on my shoulder until I dropped.  No drama in those times-- life was hard and death in the ravaged south seems so cruel it is almost bloodless.

I'd been to funerals at this Church before…the minister is a woman with a sort of monotonal voice that always sounds priestly--- comforting, in a way.  On this occasion she forgot the Lord's Prayer… right in the middle… I was reciting, without thinking-- feeling the coffin on my shoulder, the discomfort of unbleached ropey shirting-- and she was silent.  Deliver us from evil, she did not say.  Maybe the Episcopal version no longer acknowledges evil--- they are afraid it will frighten away their congregation, in this time where hellish greed fuels the ambitions of our new heroes.  Where a 19-year-old basketball player's salary could feed an entire continent.  But it doesn't.  The developers continue to develop, the digital ching of each accumulated million continues to be the preferred soundtrack of businessmen, the random incredulous accident of beauty is now available for anyone with a fat wallet,  physical imperfections are cause for self-hatred and social disgust, and fashion is not a choice but a pre-requisite.

There has been evil since man was born-- evil and death--- pain and suffering, sorrow and joy.  These days people seem to think joy is a birthright.  Rich people eradicate pain, ugliness.  They live way up high in this city-- -where there is a magnificent view but they see nothing-- no hustlers on the street, no-one shoving or pushing, no-one robbing or stabbing or killing.  They demand things… even people in the projects--- they demand foodstamps and better housing and expensive sneakers.  They demand that there are 2000 versions of E-news now, so we can listen to as many versions of why Beyonce's sister punched Jay-Z (who undoubtedly deserves it and who else could get close enough to do it but an 'inside' woman?  I would have paid her to do this, except I don't have any money).  And the rest of the world news is a tiny postage stamp on the oversized envelope of their daily information intake, if that.

Two nights ago I'd walked up to my usual grocery store in Harlem--- 112th and Lenox.  And I heard that familiar pop-pop-pop like toy caps--- like a transistor-radio version of gunshot…. but it was real.. someone was robbing the store, had sprayed bullets… no groceries for me… the luck of the Irish that my amnesiac Mom had kept me on the phone too long, asking endless questions, worrying about things she can no longer identify, or I could have been the occupant of that box on the altar yesterday.

It is Harlem… no one gave it much attention.  The blue tape came out, the sirens… the guys on the corner put out their joints.  The cops rerouted me to St. Nicholas, another supermarket further uptown where my cashier gave me just a tiny side-smirk when I told him their sister store was shut down for the night.

They are calm, these people.  They accept things.  For the most part, they have given up on ambition-- they are provided for--- they have virtually free accommodation in Manhattan-- their new white neighbors are paying 4 and 5 figures for rent, but they have foodstamps, family--- a 'hood…friends… they greet one another with warmth and cool handshakes.  If they get sick and need a wheelchair-- an amputation-- they accept it.  They don't seem to worry.  Many of them go to church; some of them don't.  The women wait long minutes for buses to go just a few blocks.  It seems there is always a funeral going on, always an ambulance--- police cars, people outside, the smell of marijuana, incense, and music… boom boxes, open car doors.  It is a kind of life in my city where neighborhoods have been renovated ad mortem, ad anonymity.  We who remember--- maybe we are the pallbearers of our former city.  We remember, we find the carved facades of the Louis Sullivan buildings even though their storefronts have been transformed into fashionista modernity.

Waiting for the crosstown last night, one of the Broadway homeless regulars was being placed onto a stretcher.  There were all kinds of secretions and body fluids on the sidewalk.  Two women cops were smirking and keeping their distance.  A water bug was running toward some of the puddles of waste, and they jumped back.  Probably some bad garbage he'd eaten.  Some kind of thick yellow snot was hanging out of his nose.  He looked bewildered or spooked--- but he always looked like that, with his wild matted dreads every which way and his leathery old face with the child's eyes.  On the sidewalk was his friend… he cried, this man-- audible weeping…. like a solo tragic Greek chorus-- he reminds me.  He had his pants rolled up to show off the oozing sores on his legs.  He was barefoot-- as always--even in winter.  He actually generates little income, because people are reluctant to approach him.  It is that disturbing… unless, of course, you have your earbuds in.  I gestured to the cops, who were way more comfortable here than at the burglary scene where they were surrounded by resentful neighbors… Yeah, he's next, one of them smirked at me… like we were sharing some kind of joke.

Maybe they are next.  Maybe I am next.  On the train downtown from the funeral, a beautifully-dressed black man made room for me.  He was coming from a funeral… just like me, he said.  He showed me his Bible, inside a briefcase.  I told him how the minister forgot the Lord's Prayer and he shook his head.  But I'm sure she was thinking-- she was pallbearing in her way…  let's hope so, anyway… let's hope she wasn't planning her lunch menu, or trying to recall her botox appointment-- or realizing suddenly that maybe she and her husband hadn't had sex since Ash Wednesday-- or a worrisome foreshadowing of future dementia.  Or maybe… hopefully….  she was genuinely stricken by the tearful passionate eulogy of this lovely man's son.   At least she apologized, acknowledged the 'unpriestliness' of her lapse.  23rd Street came all too soon.  I realize I can recite many of the Psalms.  They were my earliest poems, along with Rudyard Kipling.  Whatever-- I could have ridden forever with this man who had religion on his tongue and smelled so good.  I could have crawled into his lap and closed my eyes.  His name is Paul, he told me, as he warmly gripped my hand in parting--- like the apostle.  Like the great love of my young life.  I'm exhausted.  I'm tired from caring too much, from worrying about the guy with the rotting feet on the corner who cries.  I'm exhausted from lying in bed listening to my ghosts, from carrying the metaphorical coffin of my dead lovers and those who have no mourners.

And this morning I am especially weary for the NY Times blogger who was singing the pathetic praises of that barometer of low mediocrity, Patricia Lockwood… whose name is far better poetry than anything she has produced...I ask myself:  'What tale shall serve me here among/ Mine angry and defrauded young?'

1 comment:

Ludovica said...

We all pay the price ultimately. We build the distance into all that we create. Even if we ever get close enough to a person to touch their skin, that skin still separates us one from the other. We herd together, but when one of the herd falls to the predator, we look around in momentary alarm, and return to grazing, feeling lucky it was not our turn that time.
Some of us, the foolish, the idealistic, those who were raised to put self as far down the list of priorities as could be borne, rage at the world wanting change, we can smell the blood and taste the fear... but there is nowhere to turn with that as the rest of the herd goes back to business as usual.
Looking at the way humans really operate, it isn't so different from an ant farm. We like to give ourselves the idea that we are special, that we can feel, plan, mourn.. and we do, but how much is our nature and how much is our artifice? The women applying their makeup carefully for the funeral as an event, the penitent in sackcloth and ashes crawling to the shrine. A masquerade to mark rather than to mask something that none of us are able to touch.
A lamp goes on and we know there is electricity present. We cannot see it without that lamp, that indicator of that unseen presence. That difficult, dangerous unseen force... like emotion that can arc out at any moment and damage everything we try to control. Our peace of mind, our mundane, uneventful continuum, our desperate addiction to sameness.
All an illusion. We are all remote from each other, on the internet even more so. We feel desperately sad for person X in their time of loss, but there is nothing we can do to change it, and if we did try to step outside our cell and really put ourselves on the line for that person, would they even know how to handle that? Would they even welcome it? or would they rather receive the platitudes and essentially reject our involvement as too weird, or messy or intrusive? Assistance offered is often politely, or not so politely refused. I've done it myself, frequently. There is a fear of being beholden, of having to be grateful. We are all so prideful in our bubbles of isolation. Not many people really want those walls broken down do they? People are not so outraged by the violence and suffering of others that they themselves will do anything. Everything is distance. We are all too well insulated and isolated from that raw and potentially damaging force, and yet it is what gives us life. We are all petrified in the face of real emotion