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.