Saturday, May 31, 2014

Paulbearers

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?'




Sunday, May 18, 2014

Temporary Beauty

Satur-days I am in Chelsea.  Way west, toward Chelsea Piers, the gentrification is extreme.  Commercial square footage is among the priciest in the city now, and the extravagance of the mandatory volume requirements (i.e., vast empty space) in these galleries and occasional fashion boutiques flaunts money.  But for me, it's a proverbial walk in the park-- especially at 11 AM, before the crowds.

Most of the art these days is predictable or pretentious.  The best of it is studenty and overpriced.  Something must pay these rents.  That means you, Mr. 21st century trendy collector with the decorator and the art advisor with the birkins and Balenciaga and absolutely no sense of 'context' or taste.  There used to be a benchmark.  Go to any estate sale at an auction house these days--- there are the 'A' level works of art-- the eccentric furniture and porcelain objects, like an inanimate 'menagerie'-- lush carpets, jewelry… some hideosities and mistakes--but the sense of a personality--- the sense of passion and a point of view.  Of things cherished and used-- of a life.  Not so these days:  apartments look cold and excessively under-decorated.  Furnishing priorities are design, status and then comfort. The paintings are awkward and uncomfortable in their environment--- like they are waiting to be resold.   Like the exhibitions, these works of art have the permanent vibe of the Temporary.

Whatever.  Among the 'shoppers' and tourists in Chelsea there are also the rich young dwellers of these overpriced apartments and loft-like condos which are selling like caviar hotcakes in a city where one million dollars no longer 'cuts it'.  They are buyers or renters of this transient art which has become the biggest status symbol of all.  On Saturday mornings the young handsome fathers are out with their kids--- with the scooters and the bikes and the painted skateboards and the designer hoodies and hats.  They look slightly hung over and exhausted--- yesterday's club kids having to get up on the nanny's day off and 'feel' fatherly.  Many of them have dogs-- these distract and lighten their load with the kids who are often annoying and cranky.  This is their 'day'.  All week they have to follow pre-school rules and vie for their nanny's approval.  But all bets are off today.  They are going to milk their exhausted Dad for everything.  Of course there is always shopping-- a new toy or a $9 cupcake pacifies for long minutes… but nothing compares to a meltdown or a tantrum outside of Comme des Garcons.

Yesterday one of these Dads was lighting up against a 22nd St. wall.  He was boyish and handsome, his shirttails out… his hair uncombed, his face unshaven in that charming way.  His 5-year old daughter was poised perfectly on her Razor, designer helmet on, blond hair cascading down, shiny and smooth… but his 3-year old… was laid out on the sidewalk--- screaming, pounding.  Ohhh yeah, I am thinking, as the father actually pleads with me-- Help.  What do I do now?  I note the absence of a wedding ring.  This, I don't say, is what you get for cheating on your wife.  She has stuck it to you now.  No more weekends… your youth is going to be eaten up with tantrums and toilet training and teachers whining about your lack of participation and manipulative teenage drama.  And not only that.  He is thinking---we had this baby--- this perfect little angel, here.  Magazine-ready.  Looks great in clothes-- sings like a young Beyonce.  So… we go for another.  This is the Manhattan baby competition.  And the second one--- colicky, cries all the time, has sensitive skin, constant diaper issues-- up all night… all the ingredients of a potential high-school nerd.  You go for cocktails after work… you flirt with your co-workers, come home.  Weekends you feel guilty that you 'love' one child more than the other.  And you-- you're the Dad… the girls go shopping, you're stuck with the baby boy.  He doesn't like you either.  He prefers the nanny.  So do you.  Your wife's best friend hints about it… and now you've got 2 pricey apartments, and no more free Saturdays.  You're even losing your urge because it's no longer a quickie and a cheat, it's another potential baby craver.

Yeah, I had one of those husbands.  I mean--- I could smell it on him-- the okay, now I have everything I ever wanted---the wife I craved, the baby…and now… for my next….  And the thing is--- I felt this too.  I felt the 'what now' claustrophobia and restless malaise.  So I left.  I let the guy off the hook.  And I took the child with me.  I didn't want my baby boy to have tired cranky Saturdays with a father who craved a bottle in the same way his son needed one.

The Chelsea father joined me on my art jaunt.  I carried the 3-year old.  He just needed a little bit of love.  A cookie.  His mother.  His Grandma.  I could do this…I was going home, going to a gig… no kids, no nagging wife, no parental angst-- not these days.  Sure--I have plenty of guilt.  I'm sure my son could tell tales about his deprived youth, although that is unlike him…and I did not actually have the second, less magical child.  I did have a pregnancy-- a daughter-- with a young lover who wanted me but not really the child.  We didn't plan it, but this is a consequence of love and passion, as every teenager knows.  And once you have an actual child, the act of terminating becomes more weighted.  Besides, I wanted a daughter so much… maybe in a selfish way-- the sister I never related to,  my alter ego-- my companion in female crime, my kitchen helper, my fashion consultant, my back-up singer… There I was, Ms. cool single Mom with the sexy young boyfriend, 4 months pregnant still wearing my tight yellow and black checked vintage pants and jumping around with my bass onstage… and it went on and on--- my young lover didn't want to share me, but he couldn't leave… the pregnancy goes on… miraculously-- has its own life---you are radiant and curvy and ripe, and those biological conversations you have with your unborn child-- like no intimacy you will ever experience with any man or person…

Months passed… and after a strange accident on the subway, and a few days of worry, everything seemed fine--- until an early labor pang… and I found I had to give birth to a perfect little girl who was too perfect for my world.  It is an unbearable loss.  I never had a funeral, or a service, and standing there with this father on Saturday, holding this strange miserable little boy-- I relived my dilemma.  Maybe I felt I didn't deserve closure.  How could I celebrate my grief, when I failed this baby in the way that this father was failing his son… somehow--- I was so cavalier and took things for granted--- my adorable son.. and now he would have this perfect sister-- little Edie was her name-- she would have braids and a rag doll… I could see her in the sonogram, sucking her little elegant fourth finger, just the way I did… she was graceful and talented… and now she was a loss, a failure--- an angel, a provider of perfect little organs for other newborns, a giver… and I was the loser, the mourner, the lady in black.

The father asked me for my number.  I gave him a look… he needed a mother, too.  A friend.  I don't have a phone, I said.  I'm not letting him off the hook, even though I'd like to… even though I let my husband off the hook because I couldn't bear having him look at his son with this utter disappointment which wrecks kids.  And my little Edie…  who never disappointed me;  it was I who disappointed her.  Still, after all these years, I pray every day that her little rag doll spirit has been born into some island culture where children aren't competitive possessions and eating disorders and plastic surgery and Coachella is not on the agenda.  As for me--- I have a newborn-shaped hole in my heart which is quite permanent, at least in the temporary context of my so-called life.