Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Smoke and Mirrors

We approach the end of the year all too quickly, it seems… the downhill of December has its momentum, and try as we may, the new year is waiting like a hungry mouth to swallow things we are maybe not ready to let go.  I no longer shop for Christmas-- it's enough to manage basics, my son will maybe bring me a tree;  this is my holiday-- sitting by the colored lights in the semi-dark, collecting inventory moments.  It's been so unseasonably warm-- but there will be a price to pay.  On the news they spoke of a stagnant air mass-- that is an ugly description.  Photos of people in Beijing wearing cheap masks as though this will protect them from breathing in the terrible smog.  For someone who is sad in China, this blur of oppressive air and being confined inside must be unbearable.  I have such a tiny carbon footprint here-- my friends tease me.  No car, no taxis-- I scarcely use a dishwasher.  Still no cell phone-- I am often in semi-darkness, by the glow of my computer, writing-- sometimes the lights of the city outside are enough.  Gigs are bright and loud-- I love them, but I retreat.

Lately I have a sense of my neighbors' proximity-- as though the walls are getting thinner… like I am being invaded, slightly.  I do not know the new people, I do not really want to know the new people-- my old neighbors were interesting-- they were writers and critics and artists, but many have been forced out by an unkind economic pendulum.  Or they have died.  I am hanging in, imagining some young girl in my future helping me pack boxes for who knows what, the way I have done in my past for one or two of them.  But I hear the unfamiliar habits of new people through the walls-- faintly but clearly-- and I feel just a tiny bit less 'safe'.

One of my friends engaged me last night in a discussion about dating and expectations, and partnerships, and love.  For some reason I remembered an episode I'd not thought about for so long.  It was my first art gallery job in New York.  I was maybe 22-- there was a recession, I was on a break from Graduate school, writing another paper, and I got a lucky job in one of the best modern galleries in New York… I'd gone in and volunteered.  I want to work here, I said.  You don't have to pay me and I will work very hard.  So they sat me at the front desk where people like Andy Warhol stopped in every week, and because I was a little pretty and so eager, they spoke to me.  I loved my job.  Someone relieved me for lunch, and I hated to leave my post.  I sorted photographs and copied prices into auction catalogues (they used to come on an addendum which was difficult for the bidder), wrote invitations and worked their old phone system which at the time seemed massively futuristic.  I took home $92 a week.  I also worked at Bloomingdale's on Saturdays and Thursday nights, and after paying rent had barely enough to manage a pack of chicken legs, enough rice and eggs to get through a week-- and my morning roll and butter and coffee from a cheap deli.  The bus.  Often I walked to save the 35 cents.  It was one of those rare gaps in my life where I'd just left a boyfriend to bravely discover the city on my own, and the struggle to 'make it' was difficult but ecstatic.  New York in the 1970's was shedding a skin and changing-- but the aura of the old films was there, and the punks and musicians were simmering in some creative soup of poverty.  We girls depended also on dates to provide a relief meal or two so we could actually afford to go out and hear a band.

Anyway, all the great collectors came in and out of my gallery uptown-- I learned to recognize them; they very unpretentiously in those days gave me their name-- quietly and respectfully, and I would call one of the directors upstairs-- my bosses.  One night I was called upstairs, and asked if I would go to dinner with one of these clients-- a Greek man-- he was handsome and dark and always well-dressed with beautiful shoes--hats and gloves.  Do this, my boss said.  I had only a few cheap cotton dresses, but I wore one of them with my old pearls.  He took me to one of the great French restaurants in New York, and I was a little baffled by the menu… so he ordered for me, and watched while I ate course after course.  The food was incredible-- I was nearly starving from my spartan diet… I felt almost high during dessert.  My dinner companion ate nothing.  He sat and drank some wine, he vaguely watched me, spoke little.

The following week they asked me again to have dinner with him.  Same scenario, another restaurant.  This time he asked me if I wanted to see his place.  For some reason I was not afraid-- I knew my boss expected something and I was curious.  He owned a huge house in the 50's… his flat was on a couple of floors.  Inside it felt like a hotel-- very few things, some over-sized furniture, etc….  he poured himself a drink… he was extremely polite… and asked me if I'd stay the night, sleep with him--  he didn't want sex, just company.  So I agreed.  His bed was enormous, he had these beautiful books on the night tables-- everything was immaculate and there was this faint smell of old leather.  Most of the night he sat up and smoked.  The only vaguely incongruous curiosity was this mirror over the bed on the ceiling, 12 or 14 feet up.  It suggested a past erotic life that didn't make sense. I got used to it; maybe it was there when he bought the place, and it provided some lighting device.  I never commented; he never touched me, and in the morning I went home to change.

Week after week this went on--- he began to tell me he'd lost his wife, somehow-- she was some opera singer…I saw her photo, and she was beautiful.  There had been a little boy-- small fragments of his story revealed themselves.  These were the days before anti-depressants and he was chronically, oppressively sad.  He slept and ate little, he travelled, I knew--- ran some huge family business… and he bought art.  In his sparsely furnished apartments there were great pieces of sculpture and amazing paintings.  He took risks.  He supported new gallery stars.  It was amazing to sleep with these things-- to sense them in the dark, the way I now feel my own unlit paintings at night.  He treated me with formality and respect, even though I was cheaply dressed and so green in so many ways;  he spoke to me with depth and intelligence.  I began to touch him… just a little, at first.  I felt so empathically helpless… I was so eager to somehow please my gallery which was my lifeline-- I had no idea what they expected, but the Director, on these Thursdays, would give me a little wink when he left-- it was our secret.

Anyway, he left the country for an extended time, gave me a beautiful gift from Tiffany which I returned.  I used the money to buy myself a raincoat and a fantastic sewing machine.  In a way it was the most beautiful bargain of my life-- a kind of short story I never told.  It was chastely sexual, it was some kind of love, it was sort of a black pearl inside the shell of my young student existence.  The Director is now deceased, and I feel permission to share this-- one of the privileged fairy-tales-with-no-closure of my past, one of my anti-Sex-in-the-City episodes that shaped and changed me.  Of course I went out and did my wilding and lived with my musicians, and was summarily adopted by this city, my birthplace.  But I realize it put sort of a dark stamp on the concept of marriage as the storybook institution we perceive at 21 or 22… it was another surprising B-side and it left me with a kind of warning, an insight into full-blown adult disappointment and deep heartbreak like a kind of scar.  I can still see his dark hair, the cloud of smoke by the faint light of dawn, hear the early morning midtown traffic, my own dark hair and young face in the mirror above… like a sort of Julio Larraz painting.

These days I feel things in my past-- the warp and weft of my existence around which this tapestry of my life has woven itself.  What I realize is we can sense this 'fabric', but we can't actually see it-- not until it's too late.  I do feel a bit of the unravelling lately-- maybe the deaths, the fear of enemies in the world in a new way-- what can we believe?  The high-pressure air mass gives us sunshine and hope but it is married to the invisible stagnant air which is maybe toxic and dangerous?  My son's friend has a new tattoo to commemorate his Mom's death.  It is a lovely thing… but what about all the tattoos we don't see?

This bird that has come to Prospect Park-- it is a truly extraordinary thing.  Of course I would like to see it, but I also know I'd be part of the crowd there which is running back and forth, trying to follow its little twittery path while it explores its new environment.  I see this as a sign-- a good sign-- that unexpected tiny things of great beauty can happen in our lives, that this supersedes art as it is today, that
a random moment can take our breath away.  Besides, this bird is a loner-- and a male… it seemed to have a little scar on its beak in one of the photos, and if you look closely, its eye-- it is not a young bird.  It knows something.  Maybe it is running away from some sorrow or tragedy--- just flew on a whim, or the distraction of grief distorted its trajectory.  I am certain it has come out of its way to a strange and dangerous city to tell us something, and some of us are hopefully still listening.


Friday, December 4, 2015

Guns and Noses

The great thing about New York is the diversity, the fact that we're all thrown in together-- the haves and the have-nots.  I mean, there are a few neighborhoods that seem exclusive, but that doesn't mean there aren't homeless people and panhandlers and mixed street traffic in those zip codes.  The garbage is maybe higher priority for scavenging; there are 2 or 3 'teams' who go through the Park Ave. bags at night, gathering bottles and cans; some of the doormen and porters actually expect these people and make their job easier…  a kind of symbiotic thing happening.  Besides, the bottle collectors work incredibly hard; this is their sole source of income, they have large immigrant families who don't qualify for assistance, and they put in long hours in the heat, in the rain and snow and frigid weather.  They deserve a kind of medal or uniform.  Benefits.

I live in a mixed building; there are older tenants with very limited incomes and the new hedge-fund generation owners who require high-maintenance services and raise the cost of living here.  For these people, monthly increases are meaningless; for the rest of us, it means going without what many people find essential.  Most of us in Manhattan embrace the diversity. Of course, I don't see many of my more fortunate neighbors at the Harlem grocers' trying to save pennies--  they don't even go to stores; they order.  I do see them occasionally up at Chez Lucienne or the Red Rooster when they have tourist visitors who are curious, but mostly they frequent the same 'hoods that are comfortable for them.  Harlem is Harlem.  However gentrified it gets, you can always walk a block or two and find some funk, some hustling and street preaching.  This comforts me.

But what I don't get is how these long-standing residents of Harlem can't resent the extreme fortune of some of their new neighbors.  I mean, just today, one of the fat hedge-fund guys from across the street was walking his dog (not a common practice-- they have 'staff' to do this).  He has many times run down his classic rock nostalgia rap, just to let me know how cool he was or is-- after all, who else buys up the charity concert tickets at the Garden which cost more than my annual food allowance?  So just today-- I've been struggling with some plumbing issues, my kitchen lights are flickering-- the usual repairs that will erase my Christmas budget-- and the guy asks me how I'm doing as I pass.  How am I doing?  I'm fantastic, I answer, and under my breath find myself muttering 'you fat philandering fuck'.  Ouch.  Bitter am I?  This guy once had me bring one of my starving artist friends to hang work all over his hedge fund offices, then failed to pay for it.  After the crash in 2008,  his office was shut down, his billion dollar fund went belly up, and I had to get a state marshall to accompany us to retrieve the art which was dog-eared and ruined.  And today?  Has the guy paid back his investors?  Of course not.  He has another fat job which enables him to buy his kids apartments and pay some obscene rent for his own massive residence.  His Lexus SUV shuttles them back and forth to the Hamptons and they are spending Christmas skiing in the Alps.  Whatever. The guy has never even apologized.  His wife spent more at Barney's this afternoon than I will earn for the rest of my life.  Are they better than I am?  Smarter? Luckier? They are a kind of lowlife, in my estimation, with good table manners and pretentious foodie preferences.  They talk a kind of talk I understand, and they operate within the enormous margin of what I would like to call the outsider economy:  the staggering sums which do not exist in every single bank, mutual fund, most corporations, hedge funds--- the 95% or so fictional percent which is loaned, invested, inflated--- but which gives them the audacious collateral and income to live the way they do, without regard for you and me, without values.  Jamie Dimon is another one of my neighbors… has he ever paid back the money that bailed him out?  I don't think so.  His financial profile is so fat it would eat up a whole zip code.  What does he get?  A little bit of early stage cancer that will be cured painlessly?  A huge Christmas bonus that would solve the world's hunger problem many times over.  Go smoke your fat cigars in your cork-lined room, Jamie.  I'll bet you don't even pay ATM fees.

This Christmas what I've always known seems to be getting some exposure: the myriads of charitable organizations and not-for-profits which collect millions and millions from us bleeding hearts have been a little busted-- and lo and behold, an average of something like 6% of intake actually goes to the needy.  The CEOs and directors, the 'event planners' and fundraising directives receive not just the lion's share but the pig's as well.  I am not a violent person, but I begin to see how, for those of us who aren't getting high and watching cable shows until we pass out, there is an amount of anger and deep-seated bitterness welling up.  The murder rate is spiking in New York City.  Mass killings are at an all-time high.  The gun culture is obscene and people will apparently use whatever is at hand to vent.  Peaceable negotiation doesn't seem to be an option.  Rich people have everything, and they also have prescription power--- pain killers, anti-depressants, anti-anxieties-- you name it-- access to spas and entertainment events--- good food, expensive wine-- it takes the edge off.  The poor and not-quite-brain-dead-- some are angry.  Values don't seem to be taught, and religion seems to be another tool that is used to manipulate political goals.  Guns seem effective and they are cheap.

Politicians don't have the limited health-care options we do.  They don't even have college loans.  Who is looking out for their fellow man when the average millennial knows very little about the world beyond entertainment and their start-up culture?  I worry about my old neighbors, about the homeless fucked-over  veterans I see hanging out in East Harlem at the methadone clinics.  Some of these guys go all the way back to Vietnam.  What is going on?   People lose their homes because they cannot make a payment-- and then our entire economy and the whole obese banking system is based on the very business of debt.

A friend of a friend put a gun in his mouth and shot himself 2 weeks ago.  Why?  He left no note.  Of course, he had a gun and at least he didn't use it on someone else.  But maybe if his neighbor had thought to look in on him that night, he would have felt okay.  He was a good person.  Scott Weiland died yesterday--- his issues were complicated… but was he not the product of the whole music business?  The pressure of becoming an icon and being simply a person?  Having the adoration of everyone and the true love of no one?  Not that his behaviors helped elicit sympathy.  I'm a little angry today… angry and frustrated, and if I weren't educated and humanistic and psychologically astute,  it might occur to me to take it out on someone else.

Yesterday I visited a mental health facility where some of the patients and participants were exhibiting their artwork.  It was extraordinary and honest.  They were forthcoming about their issues and brave and creative.  They were swimming against a brutal current and doing something valuable in this culture which places a 9-figure price tag on a piece of crap made by an employed staff of a fake like Jeff Koons in the name of art.  Their work made the mainstream art market look sad and pathetic.  But who will see this? Certainly Van Gogh needed no bodyguard in his lifetime.  Nor even a bank in which to keep his money.  Who among us has not been insane or mad, at least temporarily?  I felt much more compassion and connection with their work than I have felt in a Barnes & Noble or the new Whitney for that matter.

The forward momentum of any great culture requires rebels and punks and visionaries.  Without mental health facilities like these, special people might not have access to their own talents-- they might become self-destructive or violent.  Here they are saving not just themselves, but others.  This is incredibly empowering.  They saved me yesterday from my own emotional black hole.  Their hope and painted dreams and failure to conform to a society that is sick was a kind of rescue.

The Sex Pistols had guitars; they might just as well have had guns, but they didn't.  I feel a bit useless picking up my pen, playing my songs, carrying a bowl of soup to the homeless guy on the corner, having a conversation with the crazy lady who howls outside the grocery store in East Harlem.   Stuff builds up in people, and when it becomes unbearable, they use whatever tool or weapon they have for relief.  Life is meaningless if we don't show compassion for one another, if we don't appreciate people and what they do.  Dogs become mean if mistreated; and why are we all so uber-sympathetic to animals?  It seems so possible to rehabilitate a dog, but not a person?  Dogs are cute--even the old ones.  Humans are not always so cute… especially the old and angry ones who spit and curse and disturb.

I've been seeing the same 'Happiness' statistics recently  over and over-- a scientific study was conducted which concluded that 50% of happiness is genetic, 10% circumstantial, and 40% is changeable-- diet, behavior, exercise, social participation, etc. Why in this world of threatened chemical and biological warfare can we not start an epidemic of kindness and compassion?  Statisticians are obsessed with population growth, ethnicity--- nose counts and data--- can they not poll people about their emotional status and consider this?  Let's at least begin with some human honesty because besides our 10% economic and geographical difference, we are all very, very similar.  And for God's or pity's sake, let's take the guns out of Walmart; no one ever really won a competition of any skill by destroying his opponent.  Amen.



Saturday, November 28, 2015

Angst-giving

Does anyone else have one of those friends who is always lecturing about something or other?  This week it's  'New York is the next target-- do you have your emergency water kit and your cash stash and your canned foods and gas mask and LED flashlights all prepared?'  Or it's physical fitness tips-- the superiority of kettle bells, the uselessness of cardio-- dietary guidelines, health warnings.  One of those people who lives from sound byte to sound byte, who reads one mediocre article and is suddenly an expert, who wants to convert you when he is going to be a defaulting believer within weeks-- ?….On to the next trend...

These are the same people who take offense if you reply or contradict or discuss or point out (useless-- they cannot 'listen') whatever-- and despite their enthusiastic advice, they are miserable and lost-- jumping from bandwagon to bandwagon, feeling renewed and reborn for a day or two before they realize or do not realize that they are the same clueless, unhappy, physically unfit mess they were before, during, and after, but somehow convincing you of their superior wisdom seems tantamount to having it.

If they happen to show up for your Thanksgiving dinner, they are always delivering food-channel-worthy monologues and recipes even though your other guests are busy eating and drinking and enjoying despite the annoying analysis by this person who of course doesn't contribute to your meal, or if they do, it's something completely incompatible and odd which they defend and promote by elaborating on its historic and religious and nutritional value, and how it's gluten-free and vegan and futuristic and essential, even though it looks and smells awful and remains undisturbed on every single plate at the end of the meal.  Does the maker notice?  He does not.

Every Thanksgiving I've become a little more skilled at heading these people off in advance by pleading a gig or an entire NBA team coming to pioneer a city-home holiday which I'd won in a charity auction-- spending the day at the food kitchen, a chicken pox epidemic, a broken stove, or all of the above.  I stop answering the phone a week before the holiday and tilt my head sympathetically when one sobs to me that they have no invitation, failing to consider the reason for this, and of course failing to consider hosting their own meal, because they are not a chef, but a professional and skilled guest/food-critic. Not to mention an eater.

I'm committed to the role of host, because as a musician I rarely have the time or resources to give home parties, and I do it for my son, remembering how much I hated childhood Thanksgivings at an aunt's home where I hated the food, the folding chairs at the overcrowded children's table, my uncomfortable sashed dresses and mary-janes, and the abominably unfamiliar dishes emerging course after course relentlessly from my aunt's staffed kitchen.  Not to mention the sideward parental glares admonishing me to sit up, stop whispering and playing with food, etc.

My son is allowed to binge on football, come and go as he pleases, invite whomever to our table, eat without reprimand and with joy, because he loves to eat.  No surprises ever on the menu-- food is traditional, the way he likes it, and it's a happy family day, despite the exhausting and elaborate preparation it requires.  It's a ritual in our household where there are few-- a tradition in a non-traditional family.  Our 'Grace', on the other hand, is democratic, spontaneous and loose.  There is no guilt, hopefully… just food and no rules.

This year, on each of my numerous trips to various shops and stands for ingredients, there were more than the usual number of panhandlers--- not just the calculating ones who know they get extra sympathy on the holiday, although the warm weather didn't help their plight.  But there was one man I'd not seen before who'd been sleeping by the 96th Street subway for days-- no sign, no cup, except the one I placed.  His skin was blackened as though he'd been sleeping on the subway tracks in a fire, his face was leathery and wrinkled and impossible to date with accuracy.  He smelled of stale alcohol-breath and tobacco and unwashed skin.  I watched my neighbors getting their wine and champagne deliveries in cases, their neatly boxed food orders arriving, their kitchen staff running up and down, unpacking brand new Williams and Sonoma appliances and kitchen aids… then I'd go back down the road and pass my subway sleeper… and the whole scenario began to seem to me like a bad living cartoon version of America or New York at the moment-- the have-so-muches and the have-nothings.

As I broiled and basted my turkey-- not from Pathmark this year, because my old store-- part of the Thanksgiving ritual-- the Harlem institution I attended regularly-- has been bought by the same people who have built that hideous too-thin-to-be-phallic building at 57th and Park.  What will become of the overnight shufflers with shopping carts who roll up and down the aisles until dawn, chattering and keeping warm until the sun comes up in winter?  Will 125th Street become the next billionaire's row?  I put out my food, lit my thrift shop candles, put on some cds for guests and enjoyed my warm home, which seems palatial when I considered the cardboard roof of my sleeper.

One of my neighbors this year invited herself to my meal-- she has a new puppy and it requires sooo much work, she explained, with her other dogs and her horses… but she can't leave it for more than an hour at a time… she'll be over at 7, she promised… even though my dinner is scheduled at 8-- but NO, she exclaimed! She has to be in bed at 9!  She also happens to be a Psychotherapist-- one of those people who cannot 'see' themselves because they are so busy analyzing?  I asked her if she'd bring the subway sleeper… she could use her psychoanalytic skills maybe to convince him to stop using drugs and drinking and to seek help?  Anyway, only then did she decide to forego Thanksgiving.

As I listened to various versions of 'Grace'… I thought about how this year I was a little less thankful, a little more bitter, and a little more inclined to try to focus on the 'giving'.  I served the food, tried to pacify the vegans and vegetarians, tried not to inject any moralism into a meal, but I don't feel like doing my 'leftover' Saturday dinner for my lecturer and my second round eaters.  Neither did I bring a plate to my sleeper, like a guilty Christian, because I have noticed the food kitchens are overflowing with helpers at this holiday who are all too willing to fulfill their charitable quota in this civilized way.  Then they forget.  His issue is more complex-- he is not willing to communicate or move; he does not smile.  He does not receive; he does not complain or speak or ingratiate or beg.  He certainly does not lecture, but he is teaching me something, here.

The streets seemed clean, yesterday-- the can and bottle-collectors had a worrisome day off; hopefully the overflow of extra Friday garbage would get them through the weekend.  At one UES church meal, they charged $35 to keep the homeless away.  At the annual AA marathon meal, the homeless had begun to invade… the recovering attendees were complaining… Another of my fortunate friends spent her Wednesday night at a soup kitchen, before flying off on holiday, and in the photo she emailed, with her plastic shower cap, serving the smiling needy, I swear I recognized one of my neighbors in the bread line, pointing at the creamed corn-- the one with the 12-room apartment overlooking Central Park whom I've encountered haggling with the fruit vendor on the corner.  I've zoomed in and blown up the photo several times, and I can almost swear it is this man, taking and not giving, failing to say Grace, demanding his due side dishes, lecturing.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

American Tourister

When I graduated high school, my parents gave me a set of luggage.  It was a curious gift-- not anything I'd ever thought about.  Maybe it symbolized my coming-of-age Bon Voyage.  For me, I couldn't think of anything I had to put in there.  They seemed like things that adults had-- practical things, and felt like a sort of unfulfilled promise I'd made, accepting them.  In those days they hadn't invented wheels-- these cases were heavy and cumbersome. But I had no choice.  I packed one for college, and it was a pain to stow in our tiny crowded dorm rooms.

My college boyfriend gave me a puppy at school--- she grew up to be this graceful deer-like German Shepherd mix who followed us around, slept outside my classroom buildings, etc.  In those days there was a whole hippy culture of campus dogs.  Anyway, one day she was kidnapped by a hideous character who crashed parties and stalked girls.  I followed her trail of blood to the parking lot where he must have let her out, after slashing her.  We desperately tied ripped up sheets around her wound and tearfully hitchhiked to the nearest Vet who promised to cure her, but didn't.  Her violent death haunted me for years.  We collected her cold body, wrapped her in my coat, and buried her inside my blue suitcase at the Jersey Shore.  She'd loved the surf, the beach; she was so beautiful and elegant, and had used my case as a bed on many occasions-- curled up in there, with the blue satin lining.

Sometime during college I met the great love of my life--- that breed of bad angel with a jagged halo and a guitar who steals your heart clean.  It was a wrecking and passionate story… and in the end, each of us went our separate ways--me to New York, he to his childhood girlfriend who heartbreakingly stood by and suffered his indiscretions.  Once I'd seen her--- she begged me-- I couldn't bear her sorrow.  Anyway, the night before their wedding, he showed up-- drove down from Boston, with a packed suitcase in the trunk.  Let's elope, he said.  We'll get married and take the Canadian railroad to Vancouver.  The suitcase was half empty.  I was overcome.  We sat up all night in a diner, drinking hot chocolate, planning our lives… and in the morning, I said goodbye.  He was late for his church wedding, but he showed up.  All that next week I kept thinking about the suitcase; we'd always thrown our stuff into the back of the car, like gypsies… but that suitcase was so new-- so 'adult'-- I felt the same burden I'd felt  at my graduation.  And thinking about the suitcases he no doubt had left with his wife… packed with what might have become relics of the death of marriage… things she would never have been able to open… This helped me find some sort of sad closure-- and besides, I had New York to explore…

My husband was a British journalist I'd met briefly who flew over to see me on a whim with no suitcase at all -- just the suit he had on, and a couple of books.  He brought flowers and came every weekend to renew his proposal.  One of my older and wiser woman friends remarked that if her husband had ever once looked at her the way this man looked at me--well, she'd die happy.  So I gradually let him pack up my things and carry them back to London, piece by piece.  I followed, with no suitcase-- and married him, had his baby, as I promised.  My last night in London involved his tossing my packed case from the window of our perfect flat, after a typically alcohol-fueled soliloquy about my going on the road, my imagined indiscretions--- whatever.  A lorry ran it over, and I flew PanAm from Heathrow for the last time.  After a few more dramatic episodes, he exited the marital stage, final act.  My son has not heard from his father in 20 years.  I left everything in the flat, including empty suitcases.

For years I used to see this old scruffy man with a beat-up cheap guitar in the subway.  He had one of those little portable seats and a red-plaid suitcase with a zipper--- the kind you'd see in a Hayley Mills movie from the 1950's.  He had piles of cassettes, hats, scarves, papers in that suitcase which he also used to hold the coins and dollars people threw in.  He sang like a saint, with this sandpapery edge in the lower registers, and his eyes watered.  The last time I saw him,  gaffers tape was holding that suitcase together.  His eyes were cloudy and his face looked drawn and hollow.  I wished I knew where he went at night, with that suitcase and his guitar… he didn't talk much.

There is something sad for me when I see people with luggage… coming, going-- saying goodbye, leaving something or someone behind.  Traveling is happy for tourists--- but for me I can't help thinking I'll never see these streets again, these buildings, this airport… I hate packing and I hate unpacking.  I hate endings.  Maybe that's why I seem to stay up all night until the morning--- so I know the light has come, and I'm safely into tomorrow.  Today I helped this Italian girl find the room she is renting in New York City so she can pursue her dream of becoming a singer.  She was so filled with hope, with her heavy suitcases and her new shoes.  I left her in front of the YMCA; I watched while they frisked and searched her things for some long minutes before they finally showed her the elevators to her overpriced little cubicle-cell which I hope is not too depressing, where she will unpack her dreams and hopefully find her way.  She asked me for my number, to have a coffee, but somehow I couldn't bear another New York City heartbreak, another sad ending, another unfinished story on ragged old papers of memory stuffed inside a suitcase.

Friday, October 30, 2015

You, Too…..

For the last 8 years, I take this weekly Latin hip-hop dance class.  The teacher is this dread-locked, sexy, ultra-talented dancer/percussionist/DJ who choreographs routines to great Latin and Brazilian music I wouldn't otherwise get to hear.  Lately he's been playing this version of U2's  'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For' with a samba beat, and Spanish lyrics--- it's fantastic and grooving and nostalgic all at once.  The chorus is in English… as though there's no translation for this lyric.

I remember well when this song came out-- I was fortunate to be a guest on the Lou Reed/U2 tour and I saw from stage left-- at Wembley-- and other massive stadiums, night after night, Bono come out and sing these lyrics with compelling personal passion.  Backstage the band was all hanging out with various supermodels-- who knows what was going on in his head-- a young mid-life crisis-- a confession, a genuine plateau of confusion, as often happens when people encounter that kind of massive success:  questions rather than answers?  He was sweet and adorable and at some kind of peak in every way, and when he sang this song, he made himself vulnerable… it was like an anthem of self doubt.

But it wasn't until this week, doing my little steps and turns, that it suddenly occurred to me that the lyric doesn't mean just this unfinished search for some kind of answer, but maybe the writer hasn't a clue what it is he is even looking for.  Seems so simple--- but all these years, I didn't get it.

Anyone observing my dance class would undoubtedly see all kinds of 'lost' people: the tattooed and outfitted girls who are living their Beyonce and Janet Jackson fantasy--- the older Hispanic women who shake their hips with real soul and sexiness, the men who can't seem to get the rhythm in their body-- the over-50 women who bare their midriffs that no one wants to see-- one who wears a leather bustier and even manages a split.  It's a little over the top, and one wonders what drives these people… there's significant competition for the front row, and having our teacher grab one of us for a few bars is a coveted reward.  I lose myself in the music-- it's exotic and different, and I'm beginning to understand the bass rhythms.

At the end of the class, there's a cool-down to this Brazilian version of a Bryan Adams song.  Another guy who, in the late 1980's, was looking for his heaven in the arms of the British princess.  He bought himself a house and moved over there, wrote her a couple of songs-- the tabloids printed stories of their affair…who knows?  I'm sure he was devastated by her death.  I guess he didn't quite know what he was looking for-- neither did the Princess, apparently.  Or she knew what she wasn't looking for, which  made the royal family uncomfortable.

I never found what I was looking for in London, although I thought I did, briefly.  As often happens in life, the answer we find doesn't necessarily take us through the next set of questions.  Our lives don't stop-- they roll on endlessly, with our own high and low tides and storms and days of calm.  Sometimes what we most want passes us by when we're asleep or obsessing about something useless.  We fail to love the person in our path because they don't look exactly like our current version of love, and then it might be too late.

As I get older, I think I spend less time waiting.  I used to love the periods in my life when I was pining for some boy or man, crossing off days on my calendar until he came.  There was nothing like those days and nights-- they felt lit up, enchanted-- thrilling.  But these days, I am inclined to reach out and embrace whatever I find in my path.  I love going to flea markets and thrift stores-- you never find anything you want, but the random discovery is what makes these visits amazing.  It's like scraping the bottom of some strange ocean with a net and coming up with a shell or a plant or some amazing rock.  Useless but  day-changing.  You take the thing home and it becomes part of you.

I watch people drop off donation boxes to thrift stores-- the book boxes are sad and predictable--- college textbooks, marriage manuals, What to Expect When You're Expecting, Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems, some Steven King and Joyce Carol Oates, then fitness and diet books, retirement planning, sometimes books about healing or cancer… then self-help books, manuals on depression, dealing with death, meditation tapes-- -a Bible… and there you have it… a man who maybe found what he was looking for, at least on a Barnes and Noble bookshelf,.. and then, like all of us, realized that we have limited options at the end.

Night after night, people dig through our trash on my corner--- looking.  People buy Lotto tickets-- it's uncanny the numbers of dollars spent because they believe they are going to win-- that they will be able to have what they are looking for.  The belief factor-- is mind-blowing.  People of limited income will spend a small fortune over a lifetime… convinced that the next ticket is going to be 'it'.

My rich neighbors seem to have more money than they can count-- -some of them get into collecting.  Men buy expensive guitars which they'll never play like a young hungry musician who cannot do anything but play, because he has no choice, and his heart is already full of music.  These wealthy guitar owners will never find what he has, but they might look around-- play a little, feel something-- fantasize about a different life.  One of my friends tells me she is working at a soup kitchen some nights-- feeding the homeless.  She is looking for something, maybe… paring away at her guilt because she is extremely fortunate… and doesn't realize that this system is failing the truly oppressed and underfed… but she is not looking there, not walking through East Harlem at 3 AM and seeing the numbers of bodies looking for cans and bottles, or dreaming under boxes and blankets-- dreaming of something they may or may not have found.

I think I now know it is the looking that matters--- not really the finding.  And the richest things we find are rarely if ever the ones we are looking for, because life doesn't work that way.  The best we can do is keep postponing the ending, because the finding will go on and on, and that is a gift in itself.  It's just a matter of trying not to predict or ask-- and accept the random order of life as it is, because some things are so constant-- the light and dark, the sky, the stars and moon, the seasons, moving the clock back one hour as we will all obediently do this weekend--gaining an extra hour of looking, maybe an hour of shivering in the cold or rain, an hour of love, of music, of a hotel room you have bought for a night of love, of time spent writing a song, of pain, of pleasure, of looking, as I will see it, because it might just be the hour when I will find something I wasn't looking for at all, like a poem,  and it will be enough.


Sunday, October 4, 2015

Some Kinda Love

Betrayals and break-ups always seem more prevalent in the rain. This cold relentless October rain was sort of a jolt to the city; just one week ago we were bathing in the radiant sunlight of a warm September, waving to our Pope, feeling a kind of hopeful optimism and magnanimity.  Everything I did felt just a little 'blessed'.  Tonight, it's business as usual. I've committed my one or two unforgivable social etiquette sins-- let the rebel-girl out of my mouth--  been just a tiny bit mean-spirited.  I'm soaked, freezing, snappy and blustery.

As I grow older, I'm noticing I become a little more clairvoyant and uber-empathetic.  I don't just observe-- I actually feel things around me.  I can read minds and hearts and find myself having to blink  and look away more often.  Tonight I began to hypothesize that there are two kinds of love-obsessed people: the ones that are all about being loved, and the ones that are addicted to loving.  We know the narcissists-- attractive and charming-- generally someone at their beck and call, their 'mirror-boy' (or girl), not to mention some in the wings, waiting for a stage-cue. But their counterpart-- the 'lovers' who are  so good at maintaining relationships, at partner-grooming and socializing--  they give gifts, they dote-- a little like pet-owners?  And I can spot them in a second.  The ones not currently 'in a relationship' are stalking the online dating sites, browsing Bridal magazines, seeing themselves as half of any given celebrity couple.  They are theoretical, future wives.  They make very good partners-- they cook, decorate, make reservations-- and for some men-- this is great.  They will get married, have kids, vacation, play doubles, barbecue, retire… and some will wonder where it all went.   I see these couples all too often… they seem happy and even look good together-- this is important.  But what I see now, also, is this missed connection somewhere; for the 'other half' of us-- the ones who don't really know what it is we want from love---- they will fail us and we, of course, will fail them.

Having read too much from an early age, I tend to infuse common objects with symbolic meaning.  I see a card lying in the road and find some ironic synchronicity.  Tonight I stepped onto a curb and there was a long stem… without the 'head' of the rose--- just the twig, and the thorns, lying on the puddled sidewalk.  At first it looked ominously decapitated… this is a bad sign, I think.  A death card.

A car passes-- windows open, despite the wet night… blasting some Coldplay…  Magic, I think it's called…and I don't and I don't want anybody else but you… the driver hitting the steering wheel, mouthing lyrics… I could feel his exhilaration… young, driving through the wet city, Friday night… picking up his girl… it has always been this way-- music lets us love-- through the lyrics, through the sounds… we let go, we align with someone's joy… we dance…

I can remember how this is and was… the songs we love, the songs we loved… burying our face into some chest, eyes closed… feeling enfolded and lifted into the music… even when it is a different man -- we can still close our eyes and be inside the song, inside an old memory , another dance… it is okay.  How many lovers, dancers, are closing their eyes in the wrong arms… leaving their dreams in a heap on the floor while they crawl into some warm bed… the wrong bed, the right bed… we can close our eyes and be somewhere-- anywhere.

Thinking back… how this bald man coming out of this building, with the glasses and his shirt collar buttoned up tight--- he could have been that soft long haired boy, swaying by the stage with a beer can, looking at you like you can save his life… and you can…and you did, maybe,  and who am I now, this woman walking on the slick sidewalk in the street lamplight thinking about old love, evaporated nights, reading a message into some missing rose petals?   Loves me, loves me not… we'll never know this way, will we?

James our local boom box-bearing homeless resident of the street… is howling tonight, holding his box like a megaphone, screeching out lyrics to a distorted track… he is looking not just thin but taut and drawn, ashen… wired and wiry, angry and boisterous… pointing up at the moon, chanting and preaching, singing and stomping.  Where is his love?  Who will dance with him in his dream?

In the lamplight I see something shiny-- it's a jade earring… I take it into the Starbucks on the corner.  A woman has called them, they tell me-- maybe 5 or 6 times, looking for this earring.  It was nowhere.  No, she hasn't left a number… but I leave the earring--- it's perfect and lovely...another piece to a cosmic puzzle that won't be solved, a lost soul watching its other half sail away..

My apartment feels cold and damp; my son surprises me with a late-night visit-- comes to sleep over-- feeling some October restlessness he can't shake…I remember those times, when everywhere felt like a rocking boat, a crowded subway-- except that one bed where you could lie in the dark forever, listening to the minutes-- a record on the turntable… a 25 minute universe, while all you are is the music, the ceiling, the bit of streetlight streaking onto the wall… the man beside you for an lp eternity… your version of paradise… inside this music where you can really love, like Neil Young says.  He hasn't quite found that bed this time… and maybe his boyhood room feels like 'home' for tonight.  Within minutes he is sleeping peacefully.

I am still thinking about my bad angel-- the one bed where I could always find my home… missing for so long, the last time lying beside him on his hospital bed, trying to absorb the pain… Sing to me, he said, in a morphine stupor, but he can't hear me anymore… and the lights, the lights were harsh and the machines were humming and the roses by his bed-- the perfect white roses-- they couldn't keep him any more than this headless stem I have somehow carried home… and that one person-- even if he lived.. he might have slept with other women because people do this-- they betray you, they go away, they shoot up and pass out and step out in front of cars and they jump-- they jump into and off and away.

I do one of those random record picks with eyes closed and I get the Velvet Underground… the one that starts with Candy Says.. so fragile and vulnerable… and I light a candle, and my son wakes up and joins me for a glass of wine and makes fun of my music.. while he stares off, unusually pensive, for him….By about the 3rd track he taunts me a little, singing in his out of tune buoyant boy-voice that gets me smirking… mocking the lyrics and now he is up and mock-dancing and grabbing my funny green stem in his mouth-- I am full out laughing… Put on your red pajamas and find out..  and I am singing, too, now… suddenly Lou Reed and I are as we were, as we will always be, in the music…


Thursday, September 24, 2015

Sister of Mercy

Did you ever forget the moon?  So absorbed in my earthly noise I have been -- my unfinished projects and my issues-- I completely neglected to look 'up'.  And there it was-- a little tired, but brave enough to follow me all the way up the East River Promenade tonight, reminding me to breathe-- and by the end of the path, venturing to glow on the stage of my admiration -- streaking across the water as it used to, working its magic and mischief.  After all, it's been so faithful and steadfast, this moon-- through its moods and phases-- tolerant while we invent galaxies and downgrade planets-- weathering sun storms and eclipses, asteroids and even human invasion, name-calling and privacy violations-- patient while we blame it for all sorts of things from floods to madness….

Being the Jewish 'Day of Atonement', the city felt just a little subdued.  The Pope will arrive tomorrow; I am obsessed with this. No matter how I steel myself, I cry watching the news coverage;  we are all so moved by his message of mercy (except Donald Trump, so far-- one meeting I could never envision-- Pride and false power vs. Humility and true spiritual majesty).   I thought about my old father-- the one that hates me, that will not forgive me-- the one who observes this day with ritualistic austerity, who asks for forgiveness for his sins, but does not seem to be able to forgive himself, or me.  Maybe that is key: I remind him of himself? His shortcomings?  His failures?  We are so different-- he, the war hero, the emotional stoic-- and me, words and confessions freely flowing through my music and art.  I danced, I sang, I asked questions and experimented and felt things out… I was punished and silenced-- as an adult, I was shunned.

My religion is one of forgiveness and compassion-- not many rituals or ceremonies, but a commitment to honesty and to listening-- to apologizing not to a deity but to those I may have hurt.  On the run along the river, I passed the old site of my son's pre-school-- some warm memories, and one terrible one.  I was trying to resurrect my musical career- went to Nashville for an overnight-- left him, with written explicit instructions, with his father.  One night.  In the morning I received a call from the pre-school; my son had arrived alone; he'd been unable to 'wake' his visiting Dad, got himself dressed and toddled off to school.  He was 3.  Anyone with a child knows how dangerous the city can be, and getting from home to school for a toddler is fraught with obstacles.  He managed to latch our front door behind him, but had forgotten a coat.  It was a rainy November day.  He crossed streets and Avenues, walked underneath the 59th St bridge.. on his own, smart as he was, he knew every landmark on the way.  He arrived a bit early-- (who tells time at 3?), determined but soaked and freezing.  The school contacted me, informed me if I did not appear by the end of the day, they were calling Child Services.  I managed to get on the next plane, left my career somewhere behind, and found my son happily playing, wearing the unfamiliar school spare overalls and sweatshirt… his Dad had been sleeping on the floor, he explained... he couldn't wake him… he didn't  want to be late, was afraid he'd done something wrong…

How do you forgive a parent whose substance use over-rides his obligation to a child?  I couldn't stop inventing scenarios of true horror and thanking our angels for watching over my boy.  I'd left my suitcase in Tennessee-- my husband (ex) was gone when we got home.  The fridge was filled with cans of Sam Adams; the house smelled of whiskey and puke.  There was a stain on the floor.  I'm not sure my son even remembers this incident… at a certain point he was unwilling to talk about anything personal; he drew his boundaries in.  For me, I don't understand how his father, whom we have not seen for some 20 years, and my own, who is rather absent, do not apologize.  I guess they cannot.  Difficult for me to forgive my father.  Somehow I prayed my husband would make things right, would exorcise his demons and be the man I loved, the father he had once longed to be.  But I had gained clarity regarding my primary responsibility and priorities.

For years my son endured some of the hardships of single parenthood-- small deprivations and painful exclusions from things he wanted to do; in the short run it hurt and I apologized, but I knew this was not lasting.  To a teenager, these material things are everything.  I feel guilty.  I used to feel guilty for everything in my house as a girl.  If the dogs misbehaved, it was my fault-- I loved them, failed to lock a door or put away a stick of butter; when my Dad was awakened and cranky, it was my fault… my fault that he withdrew into periods of silence, my fault that he yelled at my Mom.  My fault that he drank.  My son doesn't feel guilty.  At least there is that.

Further upriver in the moonlight I passed the hospital where my father once stayed and shunned my visits, and I feel angry.  There will be no reconciliation, no prodigal daughter.  I have seen too much and I understand now about shame and guilt, and about his failure to atone for these things.  But underneath the Atonement Moon tonight, I began to forgive myself for not forgiving my father, and I began to feel lighter.

I thought tonight, as I often do, about the story of Jacob and Esau, about the birthright and how in my own family my mother is no longer able to protect me and offer my hand for the blessing to the emotionally blind father.  It is amazing that just one touch, one blessing, was airtight in those days.  Now we have lawyers and wills and greedy petty fights among children for their piece of the financial blessing.  How did people have this kind of trust in those days-- this kind of faith and belief, the power of a word, even in the face of a swindle-- although it was a fated or maybe God-ordained 'switch'?  We don't know too much about Esau's future… but the legacy of Jacob was imperative.

Friday I am going to stand in Central Park for hours to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis.  I will listen to him talk about climate change and compassion, and about mercy.  I pray that somehow he will make the specter of Donald Trump and these overblown non-apologizers a little smaller.  I feel his love-- for children, for all people.  Suffer the little children to come to me, and forbid them not.  The Hispanic child who handed him the letter today, begging for her father's immigration status-- so brave.  And her father-- so proud and so loving of this girl who climbed over the fence to greet this Holy Man in whom she believes.  I pray that we will remember his message of love and his example of humility-- of compassion and forgiveness.  Forbid them not.

On Saturday Beyonce will take the stage in Central Park and all bets will be off.  I can't help thinking Jay-Z planned this juxtaposition, this ironic and slightly hideous synchronicity.  We have short memories, some of us.  We forget, we forbid.  We have a bad night, we recover, we clean up and go on, but some of us fail to recognize what we leave in our wake-- even the one we created without consciousness, without clear brains.  Someone will suffer for this twisted legacy,  the flip side of a blessing, which all too many of us have had to endure until we learn not just to forgive but to ask forgiveness.  To look-- up, down, back and underneath us.  To see, to shine.  

This wise Atonement Moon changed me tonight; even the light in my apartment seems different.  I am trying to let go of impossible wishes and to tend to my own dreams.  And when I 'see' that I have made a wrong turn, there is somewhere… even when our parents and lovers and friends fail us… some version of mercy-- within or without, a kind of embrace-- the brilliant broken moonlight streaking across the black river, like the heart of Pope Francis,  shining.


Monday, September 14, 2015

Caste Party

A few weeks ago I found a set of keys on Madison Avenue.  Actually, it was a Louis Vuitton key ring with several sets of keys attached-- way too big for anyone's pocket, and it was 11:30 PM.  I looked around-- there was an upscale restaurant 2 doors away; maybe someone was getting into a taxi and they fell out; you'd think they might notice-- there were enough keys to open every door in an average apartment complex.  So I went into the restaurant.  Of course, I was wearing my usual neighborhood going-to-the-gym attire-- old sweats and a hoodie.   The bartender and hostess gave me the frozen smile; a very curt 'no, no one lost their keys.'  The bum's rush.  Maybe, I suggested, you want to make a discrete table-to-table announcement.  Most of the remaining diners looked a little loosened and relaxed.  Maybe you should keep them here, in case someone should call in, looking.  But nothing doing.

So I stalled a bit-- paced up and down the block, looking for dog walkers, anyone who seemed searching for lost objects.  And nothing happened.  I went into a nearby building, spoke to the super and doorman who seemed disinterested, left my phone number.  Next day, fully 24 hours later, I got a call from the super who said there were posted signs along the block asking about a set of keys.  I went back to the scene,  took down the number, went back home (I still don't carry a cell) and left a voicemail.  Next morning I get a call from a woman who happens to be a household-name real-estate superstar-- we see her on television all the time, literally… and she is in Palm Springs, showing some property, but she must have dropped her keys while she was getting into her chauffeur-driven car… on the way to her chartered flight-- and she just KNEW someone would have picked them up because isn't it such a fantastic neighborhood I live in?  And please drop them at HER restaurant-- where the employees two nights ago had let me know with their eloquent body language that even 60 seconds was wearing out my welcome in their establishment.  Her driver will pick them up.  End of conversation.  No thank you… no 'what is your name'?  Nada.

Before I make my drop, I look on her website at the several exclusive listings she, Mme. Chairman, is showing personally… a 5th Ave. penthouse, 2 triple sized mansions near the Metropolitan Museum, and 3 or 4 neighborhood brownstones.  Yes, the numbers are labeled on each set of keys.  Here I am, with access to the richest homes in upper Manhattan-- a free pass-- information that could make any of these owners cringe or withdraw their multi-million dollar properties from this superstar with the slippery fingers who was undoubtedly too busy with her iPhone and her champagne glass-to-go to notice that she'd left a thief's winning lottery ticket on the sidewalk.

I am careful not to overdress for my return trip to drop the keys with the hostess who is equally smile-less when I approach her.  I drop the first name of her boss, tell her the driver will retrieve them.  Does she apologize or offer me a Bellini, a slice of their famous tiramisu, a glass of wine?  She does not.  Do I rat out her snotty attitude to her boss?  I did not.  She is, after all, despite her dress and perfect hair, working class like me, and who knows what favors she's had to perform to get this job which puts her in direct line-of-sight of the eligible playboys of Madison Avenue, married and single?

And that is the end of my little upper-east-side good-samaritan fractured fairy-tale of the month.  And of course, this woman wouldn't stop to think that I haven't had a restaurant meal in literally years, that I had to stretch when my son was a teenager to satisfy his appetite for pizza but mostly I scrimped and economized and my weekly food budget was equal to maybe an average appetizer in her restaurant.  My Dad wouldn't stop to think, when I gave him a gift and he tossed it, that I'd had to forego something that month-- not just a luxury, because there are no luxuries-- but something like a metro card, which means walking everywhere for a couple of weeks--- not so bad, but time-consuming.

In 1976 I found a wallet in a late-night taxi.  As the driver dropped me off, I told him I'd call the owner; there was a driver's license and we had paper phonebooks in those days.  I spoke to someone; gave my address… a man picked up the wallet next day, and left an envelope.  I opened it.  The wallet had belonged to the great Paul Simon.  The note said thank you, with 3 crisp $50's.  That was a week's pay back then.

Have times changed?  Have we forgotten about people actually walking and talking and courtesy and compassion and humanitarian kindness, appreciation, gratitude?  Not that we do things to be thanked, or for 'credit' or reward.  It is just a simple acknowledgment.  A tiny debt to repay-- so easily-- with just a smile or some words.  Would the current version of Paul Simon have his assistant text me or leave me a ticket for a performance?

The dirty little secret about New York City now is that there is an existing caste system.  There are instant start-up millionaires and lottery winners, but for the most part, it's a sort of a boys' club or hedge fund.   For the underdogs it's incredibly difficult to manage to buy even a tiny apartment anywhere.  For the honest working class, there is a lot of hard work and not so many rewards.  Illness or a catastrophe wipes us out, costs us a home, dignity.  For those on welfare, it's a different story.  People with benefit cards take life a little more for granted, and if they feel like using a high-interest  credit card to buy an engagement ring they can't afford, so be it.

I took my boyfriend to a special birthday dinner one year; he was dying to eat at Cafe des Artistes before it closed.  I worked extra days, hours… made the reservation… we dressed to the nines.  I memorized the menu, dreamed about what I'd eat… and when we both put in our orders, our tired waiter informed us there was no lamb or fish left… in fact, there was really only the chicken and the pasta.  I literally wanted to cry.  I could scarcely eat, and had a terrible night.  We quarreled.  I felt defeated and pathetic and cranky.  Unfinished.

Corporations have blocks of season tickets for sports.  Box seats.  For me, when my son was small, it was an enormous sacrifice to get us birthday Knicks tickets.  The seats often sucked and once there was a drunk heckler next to us who spilled beer and ruined the night.  Sometimes there was a column blocking the court so we'd have to keep our heads going side to side and missed half the action.  If you're a celebrity you get an unobscured view.  Sometimes you don't even show up.  Somewhere in the stadium is a kid in an upper deck who will never again see a game, live.  He will remember this game for the rest of his life, even though he can scarcely make out the players because his Mom doesn't have binoculars.

On 9/12/2001, the day after 'the' 9/11, we were called in to play music in Times Square… mostly for the exhausted firemen and policemen who came uptown for breaks.  They were whacked and messed up and ate listlessly in their heavy gear while they listened to our blues.   There were a few tourist families stranded in New York City on aborted vacations-- one especially who befriended me.  They'd come from Kingston, Jamaica, using their life savings to take their 3 young children to see the Lion King.  The kids knew every lyric to every song.  Of course there was no performance-- there was no return flight.  They were stuck in a hotel they might not be able to pay for, for an extra week… they'd run out of money and were living on hot dogs.  I got them what I could from the kitchen… the kids drank cokes.  They never sat down-- they couldn't afford to order-- but the music was free.  And they danced-- night after night-- the parents with each other, like a couple, face to face, or with the kids, as they could, with soul and love.   The children enjoyed the music; they called it 'the party'.  Finally, after about a week,  flights resumed and they left.  I think of them every 9/11,  along with the first responders and the victims… the sadness… I see them in the lasers at night, dancing.   The children are grown now… a tiny minor financial tragedy after-ripple of the 9/11 disaster… Really non-remarkable, but in their lives assuredly the experience they will remember and relate to their grandchildren.

My son used to ask me if poor people are happier than rich people.  I think they are, subtracting the bitterness. In cultures without this urban 'caste' system-- without the Tiffanys and the $1,000 football tickets-- it's easier.  But I will never forget the tiny girl from Kingston, with her colored barrettes and dreadlocks, and her little plastic Lion King charm bracelet, leaning against my knees, plucking my bass on the break, rocking her head back and forth, singing to me softly 'It's enough to make Kings and Magga-bonds (sic) believe the very best'.


Monday, August 31, 2015

Send in the Clowns

While I was in graduate school I worked for a few art galleries.  One of them was an upper-crust private art business in a gorgeous townhouse--- the kind with the spiral staircase and the grand entry hall that in those days only seriously monied people had.  I was still in my early 20's but had to greet and show paintings to wealthy Japanese business men who were building corporate-sponsored museums back in the 1970's when so much art was being exported to the far East.  For this purpose, the gallery bought me a fancy silk dress and beautiful leather shoes, even though I was living in a cheap cramped  studio apartment with a poor guitar player and a scruffy dog.  They often left me alone for days to run things while they travelled the world, visiting collectors.

Toward Christmas of my first year there, I had to show a very special Renoir painting to one of these men.  I sat behind a large desk with my hands folded, as I'd been instructed, trying to look older.  He spoke no English but handed me a beautiful leather briefcase filled with new bills and told me to count out $1.5 million, the price of the painting.  I'm pretty sure there were mostly $1,000 bills in there… and even those took some time to sort.  While I counted, he took out a cigarette from a solid gold case; I noticed his teeth were yellow and crooked.   He didn't watch me.  When I was done, I handed him the briefcase and he gave me a card with presumably a shipping address.  He bowed, said thank you, and I led him down the grand stairs to the door where his limo was waiting.  I stuffed the bills into a bag, stuffed the bag into my huge sack-purse and went to hail a cab.

Anyone who has been in Manhattan at Christmastime knows there is stiff competition for a taxi, especially in mid-afternoon on 5th Ave headed for 59th Street; after 15 freezing minutes, I got on a downtown bus.  I was well aware of the irony of me, the young grad-student with a frumpy worn-out Fred Braun leather bag in a recession, carrying what today would amount to $6-7,000,000… hopefully an unlikely target for a pickpocket or mugger… clinging anxiously to my purse.  At the bank, I went directly to one of the desk-officers where I announced I had a large cash deposit… More than $5,000, the woman asked, looking me up and down?  Considerably more, I blurted out.  So they secreted me in a room where I worried that I'd have miscounted and would be responsible for a bill or two.  In those times, $4/hr. was good pay.  Oddly, the gallery owners never seemed nervous or vigilant; it was like they trusted me with keys, their checkbooks, their homes and personal business.

I left the bank with a huge sigh of relief, a notarized deposit slip and some Morgan Guaranty chocolates they reserved for special clients…  and went back to my Cinderella nights hanging out at village bars where my boyfriend played and I knew the bartenders because otherwise very few of us could afford to buy a beer.  Years later I realized that I'd kind of lost my art virginity that day when the impact of the money eclipsed the experience of the painting.  I'd seen these Japanese men often with their beautiful handmade suits, their young well-dressed concubines getting their hair cut by Vidal Sassoon and wearing little Tiffany diamond necklaces.  They were buyers, they were cultured and elegant, and American luxury items were commodities they prized.   I didn't 'get' that I was facilitating this 'drain' of art that I might never see again, but the level of collecting in  those pre-billionaire times was beyond my comprehension, as was the competitive greed factor which would eventually turn the art business into a hedge-fund-like market of manipulation and insider trading-- of fakes, forgeries and deals.

I once related this story to some rock and roller who was mystified that I hadn't considered getting on a plane to somewhere with more money than I could ever spend-- living the life of a criminal emigre on some exotic island.  But I hadn't.  In fact I was even happier to hang out in dive bars where hamburgers were $1 and a taxi home was out of the question.

My second financial loss of innocence happened when I had a crush on some lame guy who worked for television.  I'd had 100 boyfriends and suitors but this guy seemed untouchable and mysterious.  It was his birthday; I took the day off, cooked for 15 hours-- his favorite fried chicken, potatoes, baked a triple chocolate cake, wrapped everything in a basket, told him to meet me in Central Park where I'd reserved a row boat and rowed him out on the lake where we ate, and I played Happy Birthday on a little wooden music box and lit candles, gave him presents and fortune cookies, balloons.   I rowed him back to shore so he could get back to his job, I was ready to surprise him that evening outside his apartment only to find he was returning home with some tall dark tart from work who hadn't even bought him a doughnut.  I was devastated.  Lesson 2:  there's money, and there's love.  Or there's sex and nothing else matters, at least for the moment.  And acting mysterious and unapproachable doesn't make you any more valuable or rare.

Somehow even the discussion of money when you are falling in love seems inappropriate and a little obscene.  You don't leave a sales ticket on a gift, but these days  everything in this culture seems to have a digital price tag and we know the value.  Billionaires are everywhere in this city and it all seems a bit cheap, the way that Japanese businessman bought the painting without even looking, without feeling the pain of the cost.  We know the price of cars, and iPhones, botox and a new set of expensive white teeth.   I know personally the price of my first engagement ring took a toll on my heart and I preferred a cheap silver band from the poor songwriter who made my heart sing when we lay down.

But I am in the minority here, and as we get older, ripped jeans and old clothes aren't quite as appealing and we all wait in line in banks and in stores.  Rich or poor, our loves abandon us, and the ability to drown our sorrows in material goods seems less and less therapeutic.  That Renoir painting might be worth $100,000,000 today, but most young collectors would rather have a Basquiat or a Warhol Elizabeth Taylor.  Today that bag of money might buy a 1-bedroom apartment in Harlem.  Time moves on; few of us even see $1,000 bills these days-- these transactions are electronic and swift.  Girls work in fancy galleries today because they want to be part of the world of money, not because art is magical and access to the huge libraries is worth an amount of overtime. People buy art and often rarely look at it; it is a commodity, it has lost the sense of precious rarity that things used to have when you had to travel many miles to see them in person, when only a few select individuals could own the things that belonged in museums, and they pursued these things with a collector's passion and love.

And how many of us fail to acknowledge the modest treasures of our lives--- our special things, our old dolls and toys which dance in our memory-- our loved ones who may not be our dream fantasy husband or wife but the person who gives with their heart, who greets us on our birthday with a black coffee/no room and a street pretzel, who doesn't forget who we once were, who we still may be, and who we will no longer be, when the relentless calendar has passed a few more milestones?  We can create our dreams, but we can also acknowledge that person next to us on the bus--- rich or poor, Prada or Target; we walk the same streets and sleep beneath that same close full moon that seemed to whisper in my ear as it walked alongside me last night-- 'Isn't it rich'… ?


Monday, August 10, 2015

Pentimento

I met this medical student in my gym-- speaks Australian English.  He told me he's from Nepal and honed his accent by watching tons of Australian TV.  You can close your eyes and swear he's a native; he's never been there.  What is the meaning of this sort of thing?  Like Madonna when she returned from London?  I lived in London and remained an American.  Sure, when you walk through mud your boots are going to track some dirt in your house, but you leave them at the door.

My friend is dating this guy who just doesn't seem right to me; something 'off', something vaguely dishonest.  Not criminal, but-- like the Nepalese boy-- sort of a forgery.  People who say they went to Harvard when maybe they did go-- to a football game, summer school-- whatever--  but we know what they think we understand.  Things are not what they seem… and in this culture of texting, massive information networks available to us… it baffles me that there is more deception and personal airbrushing than ever.

In my parents' generation… it was name-changing, erasing the edges and accent of your ethnicity, to 'blend'.  The beginning of plastic surgery-- nose jobs to hide your heritage, hair straightening and whitewashing.  Beyonce takes this to a new level-- the Kardashians.  Dye jobs, waxing, lasers… transgender transformations.

Maybe it's my super-Aquarian nature, but I've always been a truth seeker.  In college I studied art history… I obsessed about discovery, attribution.  My degree required a museum colloquium where the final exam was deciphering fakes, comparing signatures.  You had to know.  These days I can't rely on  experts and committees-- too much money to be made by the discovery of an un-catalogued Michelangelo or Rembrandt.  A manuscript-- like the Harper Lee which would never have got past my editorial desk.  The Jean Michel Basquiats.. .the ones he did, the ones he didn't do… as long as they have a certificate, it all seems to be okay.  As though it is 'belief' that is bought and sold.

I've always been obsessed by the story of Jacob and Esau-- how the birthright was switched by a swindle.  How history is changed by deception, by forgeries.  How we sometimes believe what we are handed… because it is too difficult to argue-- and how can we question everything… the water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we are served now, the vegetables in the grocery store.. are they organic? Genetically altered?  We must pick our battles.  Jesus as the Messiah would have a terrible time in our culture today-- he'd have to be managed by Jay-Z or marry Kim Kardashian.  We believed in Milli Vanilli.  Jesus would not be able lip-synch or have pitch-control.

My first truly traumatic moment was maybe at the age of 3… I was going up the escalator at Grand Central terminal, with my Dad; it was maybe rush hour-- -there were masses of people-- and I reached up to take his hand, and realized after a few seconds that it wasn't my Dad-- it was a total stranger-- and for a minute or 2, I was lost-- completely up-ended-- like I had to rely on my own instincts, for the very first time… and fortunately, the substitute hand belonged to a kind man who helped me find my Dad and I was probably smacked for who knows what-- my Dad's own fear, his perilous failure to watch out for me because he was always walking too quickly (something I have inherited).

My niece told me a story about how she had a first date with a guy, fell asleep on his bed, and woke up with his cousin.  There are movies about these kinds of things.  I would like to think I can feel the person I love-- blindfolded.  I would know his scent, his touch-- in a nano-second.  But we've all had these moments-- sometimes we reach for the wrong person, we turn to speak and there is a stranger.

When I was maybe 23 I went to the wedding of a classmate's brother.  They were from one of those super-wealthy New Jersey communities with the grand house and horses and grounds and servants… 21 bedrooms.  I'd actually gone on a date with the groom, although his brother was more my type-- the lost tormented poet/hippy who lived with a dog.  They had matching paisley scarves, he and the black lab.  He was shy and silent and would sit near me in the library and smile with some kind of passion but never touched me.  Anyway, his brother was a preppy young banker-- aggressive and obnoxious.  He spent too much, drank too much, played golf and dated debutantes and bragged about it.  He took me to the opera and made no headway afterward.  We scarcely spoke and I was vaguely surprised to have been invited to the wedding but it was great to see his sweet brother who had been traveling with his dog across the Northwest.  We all stayed up late… there was a pre-wedding night of partying and drinking and drugging…

Anyway, I went to bed in my wedding-guest room with the old lace-trimmed linens and piles of fine down monogrammed quilts… and awoke to find the groom in my bed.  Yes, he reeked of whiskey and dope… he was aggressive and it required some adrenaline and self-defense skills to get him off me so I could turn the light on… was I tempted?  He was disgusting.  Did I believe his sheepish explanation that he really thought it was his bride who was way more padded than I am?  Of course not… and in some vague way, did I wish it had been his soft, lovely dreamy brother who never actually touched me?  Yes, I did.

I never told on him.  He danced with me at the wedding, and with all the other women, with  irreproachable manners.  After all, he was a banker and was to become a hedge fund master.   Did I feel a tiny loss of innocence because I believed somewhat in the magic of weddings?  Do I disbelieve the facade of these power couples of New York?  I did.  I do.  I was the single bohemian Mom at a prep school where once or twice a very married father tried to test the waters after a school function.  They confessed and complained and one of them even sobbed his misery.  Those days are so over for me… all of these advances always threw me; I never expected attention… I am not the conventional bait, but I had more big fish than I deserved.  And I generally threw them all back for canned tuna.  More my style.

Last month I looked over a collection of art; one painting stood out-- I'd known the artist from my first gallery job.  The signature was completely wrong, and so was the painting-- I told them.  Last week I saw it come up for sale at one of the major auction houses.  Do they care?  No.  In the larger picture (pun intended), it matters little… it is a painting.. at face value.. does it matter that it isn't as attributed?  To me it does.  It's sort of a lie-- an insult to the artist who was from the generation where truth mattered, where art was a kind of truth or it mocked itself.  The truth is important.  It is important that we can decipher facade from structure, even though 90% of reality is part of a virtual cloud-- a digital, non-palpable image.

Tonight I walked down Malcolm X Boulevard, or Lenox Ave, where I can still feel the oppressive Sunday vibe of James Baldwin's Go Tell It On The Mountain.  Many of the storefront churches and stoops have been replaced by the Harlem Shake Shop and other upscale enterprises-- but a few old barbershops and liquor stores remain.  I try to listen to these buildings, wonder if the gentrification has disguised their voice.  Some of these Harlem buildings were originally the grand homes of rich Jewish businessmen; the church at 120th Street was a former temple.  The 'I' that came here to find James in the 1960's is no longer recognizable… my facade has changed.  No one is chasing me down any streets to get my phone number.  I remember in school how they showed us an original Picasso composition, visible with a black light beneath the surface painting.  I wonder now which one is more real…for that matter, which one is me and which the ghost of myself?  Truth is that time will  bury us all.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Never the Twain Shall Meet

When I was maybe 28, I ducked into an upper east side bar to avoid some creep who was following me home.  It was about 2 AM; I think I'd been at JP's-- one of those late-night rockstar hangouts where occasionally you'd see a seriously magical gig-- people like Robert Plant or Bowie doing a jump-up.  Things like that-- the near-perfect synchronicity of low-profile and high-profile-- happened then; today instagram and twitter ensure a mob-scene within moments.

Anyway, way back on that night, I talked to the bartender for an hour or two, and left when the coast was clear.  I worked in an art gallery in those days; his brother-in-law had had a gallery at some point.  We must have exchanged first names and some nominal details because weeks later a colleague told me some guy was calling up every gallery in town looking for someone with my first name.  Inevitably he showed up, and yes, it was flattering that he'd embarked on this journey to find me, and yes, I had a boyfriend but he was always on the road, etc.  He had a new job, downtown… one night I gave in to impulse and went in --alone; he remembered my drink.  I had plenty of time to watch his hands, his mixing grace, his profile with the perfect hair falling just-so over his eyes… his body.  He was tall, like an athlete.  We left in a taxi, hardly spoke, ended up in his west-side apartment-- one of those perfect spontaneous anonymous encounters where you confide everything you are, without words, because he is a stranger, and that was safe in some way, and he'd passed some kind of test of desire making all those phone calls.

It went on this way for maybe a year-- my guilty pleasure.  I'd show up, late; sometimes he'd whisper something to another bartender, fold up his apron and we'd be in a taxi within minutes.  Other nights I'd sit-- listen to music, watch the ice melt in my drink, indulge in the indescribable calm of these hours where I'd abandon everything in my life for something unfamiliar and undemanding that just felt so safe.  We were intimate in ways only strangers can be.  Sometimes we'd watch TV and eat… we'd laugh and lie there, like husband and wife… and then I'd have to leave.  Sometimes my boyfriend would be home and fail to ask me where I'd been, fail to recognize the scent of passion.  I began to resent him for this-- a sign of his apathy-- failure.  I'd shower and dare him to interrogate me; he never did.

One night-- and it was inevitable-- the bartender was magazine-beautiful-- he walked into a club with two gorgeous blonde women.  I tried to run out, but he'd seen me; I took refuge in the bathroom…. he was banging on the door, the blondes were drunk and laughing, and I exited through the window, ran home feeling humiliated and scolding myself-- really, what did I expect?  That I could prolong some  temporary moment in my life indefinitely?   I'd already stretched it way thinner than any version of reality.  But I was hurt.  My own boyfriend provided little consolation.   Still, it felt like the magic of New York had been zapped into dullness… the glitter had washed away; here I was, on the curb beside my smashed pumpkin fantasy.

Of course, a year later I'd met my husband, and these New York adventures began to recede into some archived anthology of dreams-- something to take out and look at on a night when I begin to doubt that this version of me really existed.  Love is enchanting-- in all its forms; it transforms us, and the dream of it-- the strange dream of unqualified desire-- floats somewhere above us and behind us.

Today I walked through the park with my son-- the son I could never have imagined in those old magical New York days.  I listened to his struggles and angst, his relationship doubts and anxiety, his career concerns.  His style is so different from mine-- he's kind of a millennial hipster-- well-dressed and confident, with an army of accessories that seem to constitute success at his age.  His context is so foreign-- his needs, his ambitions-- and I love him with a love I could never have imagined.  He is of an age where I am now able to see him as a man-- anti-maternally.  And I began to realize-- here he is, making his own New York tales-- with cell phones and texts and workplace flirtations-- but unable to bring any of them to any kind of emotional closure.  We stopped by my favorite uptown church-- St. John the Divine, where the Poet's Corner always provides an appropriate message… something he can send his girlfriend.  The one he usually picks is Mark Twain-- 'There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth'.   He has always been a bit of a truth-evader; his first girlfriend put a poster of Pinocchio on his door.

What I do realize is that my tales and experience are a little dated and useless for him.  I no longer bother to offer these; after all, I can't keep him from his mistakes and bad decisions, from his penchant, like so many young men, of mistaking his dick for his heart, which I suppose is preferable to the reverse.  But there we were, in this sacred Church, with the soaring Gothic space and the passion of truth and the spirit of God and the heart wrenching sadness of Mary and her tragic beautiful son… people praying, an organ practicing hymns… and here is my son…. losing his religion--  his religion of trust that love will come and it will be happy and good and fulfilling, and he will be saved and safe in its clarity.  And this is not the version of life as we know it.

As for me, I will never again feel that total abandon and passion and paradoxical safety of a strange lover's bed.  I have learned what I have learned, I have felt what I have felt.  Love is sacred, love is painful, love is searing and ripping and confusing and wrecking and is maybe never safe, except the love in our hearts that we hold for our sons and daughters and even our lovers, even though there is no guarantee they will return or honor this.  Love--like a heart-- can be bloody, and dark.   Love is Gangster.  Guns and Roses.  No one punishes and goes unpunished like love lost.  The death of love is like no other.

My son swore he'd never get hurt again, or hurt anyone else.  But that is impossible, I don't say.  Every single hurt is at least as bad as the one before, and unfortunately, if we are honest, we will hurt our loved ones.  He will revise his wisdom, time and again.  Hopefully, his path will be straighter than mine, less cluttered with mistakes and detours and regressions.  Because I loved all these mistakes and heartaches and diversions.   Everyone who loves must be hurt…but they will go on… they will mourn, they will create and redeem memories, they will leave little souvenirs like stones in a pathway so they will not forget, or for some of them-- they will forget.

On the way home, we passed a huge bag of basketball trophies outside a tenement building.  For me it felt sad; I kept shelves of these in my son's room.  He was relatively unsentimental, like the person who'd discarded these: after all, it wasn't about the trophy-- it was about the man.  So our Sunday afternoon walk, like all things happy and sad, came to an end.  A little maternal advice, a tiny gift for his girlfriend, and he went home with his truths, and I with mine, stretched or not.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Waiting

When I was in grade school I couldn't wait to be 10.  Something about the double-digit thing, the way it looked-- it seemed perfect.  I knew everything would be amazing when I turned 10.  At 10, the world did improve for me; I discovered rock and roll.  I had my first cigarette; just holding it and watching it burn slowly was a coming-of-age thrill.  My legs were disproportionately long; I didn't really appreciate my attributes, although boys asked me to dance and even kissed me.   I desperately longed for braces on my teeth; I thought they would make me look older.

Boys required patience.  Crushes were painful and took weeks to cultivate.  A nervous exchange prefaced another long wait-- by the telephone, where there was little privacy and sibling competition.
Sometimes you'd have to wait a whole summer to talk to your young paramour.  He might send a postcard and even the stamp would be magical.

These days love requires less waiting; texting has telescoped the space between us, and made some relationships cheaper.  The waiting, contrary to the song, is not really the hardest part, but the best, in a way.  We have forfeited this luxury of time in the interest of convenience.

Yesterday I was in a funk and walked up through East Harlem, as I often do when I want to blend into the local population.  Daylight hours uptown mostly mothers and young children are on the streets-- also the disabled and non-working.  It always seems there are so many more wheelchairs and amputees there.  A man I often see hangs out on 104th Street;  he is handsome, but has no legs.  Sometimes he is eating.  I wonder if he needs help to use the bathroom… he is waiting, patiently, for someone to come home, for his helper-- a wife, a son or daughter.  He doesn't wave.  Dogs wait patiently in the tenements for their owners to come home.  I walk-- wait on lines, still without a phone, so I can feel time.  I sense the miles up and back, the chatter and the music from open windows, the Mexican vs. Puerto Rican accent and style-- grown men in costumes of sports celebrities, women in loose colorful clothing.  At the grocery store they call me Mami and tell me to Vaya con Dios.  They don't care how I am dressed.  I walk through the Meer and there are men on benches smoking and sitting.  Some of them fish.  I always think of the Old Man and the Sea.  Some of them have dogs who sit patiently beside them, waiting.

Passing the hospital, there are people in the blue wheelchairs outside, waiting for the ambulette or for a family member.  Some are old and some are young.  Some have IV tubes and have turned the color of their medications.  They want to go home, they have finished the daily treatment torment.  They are waiting for the pain to return, or for the pain to subside.  Some look at me with sorrow in their eyes, but most are not looking anywhere.  They wait.  I bless the warm weather.

When I was a teenager I came home and waited for the next day.  We'd watch this show called 'Never Too Young' and the time between episodes was interminable.  The nights were long, the walks to school were eventful and tinged with the anticipation of seeing whichever boy was carrying my books between classes.  The space between things was so full and rich… you dreamed, you invented, you sang to yourself, you wished and longed for things.

My first husband used to go on the road, and these intervals were unbearable.  To be physically apart was unthinkable and we would write and sometimes speak over great distances at great expense… and it was passionate and terrible.  These times have receded like old waves… the longing subsided and other longings came to take its place.

It's politically incorrect to say this, but I feel sorry for women who don't experience motherhood.  This waiting is epic and long.  It is both anxious and peaceful-- it ties every single woman in the world together.. from princesses to African artisan-women to O-lan in The Good Earth who was my first literary version of a birth-giver.  We are blessed with hundreds of days in which to anticipate and wonder, learn to love our new life, to talk to it, to worry about the suffering ahead, whether their hair will be curly or straight, whether they will be happy. And just when you are so tired of carrying this weight… you suddenly do not want it to happen… you want to stay this way forever-- connected, attached-- with the two heartbeats-- you want to prolong the waiting… but it happens, and the days of infancy are so long and difficult and sleepless, and you feel this endless passage of time with an archetypal slowness…

But here we are--- waiting to go onstage now, with children grown, with so much life behind us- and even this time feels foreshortened.  We sit in a doctor's office, waiting for a bit of pain, knowing it will pass, and that we will pass, and our sorrows will pass, even though they are unbearable.  We will no longer be waiting at some point which keeps approaching with almost terrifying acceleration.

My niece is in a waiting pattern.  She is waiting for love, she is texting and tweeting and sending out instagram photos and dreaming of these boys and men who don't really exist but are like digital pin-ups.  This kind of waiting is not good, I tell her.  You must go out and begin your life.  You must find your actual physical space and take your place because these celebrity fantasies and fairy tales do not just happen.  Life is what happens when you stop texting and you listen to your heart.  You must embrace the wait-- the physical passage of time-- the loneliness and the longing and the not-knowing.  Like an explorer, you must suffer the voyage before you are rewarded with the discovery-- you must log long days and weeks wondering if there will even be a place for you at the end of the distance.  You must learn to believe.

I still use public transportation exclusively.  I like the required 'wait' for a bus or train.  I read and think, and use my writer's voice to invent lines and make up songs.  I am conscious these days that my time  is short and the waiting may not be as sweet.   The distance is not as great between points as when I was 10, but without the waiting, our lives are like words without punctuation, without line breaks, without space and without time. The beating of our hearts is the real timekeeper and to fail to listen is to fail to leave space for love to come in--sometimes when we least expect it, even when we fail to recognize it--- there it is, as though it has been waiting forever.




Saturday, July 11, 2015

Hunters and Collectors

Like most writers, or maybe preachers… there's a running sort of monologue in my head… I walk, I ride subways… and this undervoice, this commentary… usurps my ear, and occasionally escapes in a snide remark that I swear I am not responsible for… my 'writerless' companion, my simultaneously better and evil twin.  I am a collector-- of voices, of snapshots I will never take-- and she is the critic, the mouth--even when I look down at the sidewalk, she reminds me, she spooks and taunts me…

I still pick up change… tiny treasures on the street intrigue me-- someone else's accident that intersects with my random existence-- the cosmic coincidence thing.  Something I've noticed: people in Harlem don't pick up coins.  Like that woman on the train that brushed herself off when she realized some silver had leaked out… and yet, these Fifth Ave. eccentrics in my hood-- with doormen and drivers--- they will stoop for a dime….maybe not a penny, but a dime.  That's their boundary.  Me?  I'll investigate a worthless earring, an old book, a penny.

For some reason on my walk today I thought about the story of some artist in Chicago-- a Henry Darger type--- or maybe it actually was Henry himself who was a hoarder of great renown, and the quintessential undiscovered artist.  Anyway, he saved up bits of string, and wound them into a ball which eventually, like some Magritte fantasy, dwarfed everything else in the room, made it impossible to enter or leave-- essentially 'ate' his world.

Henry died of stomach cancer; among the thousands of items in his apartment-- including the incredible, magical artwork and writings--  were hundreds of empty Pepto Bismol bottles.  He was a collector.  Most artists, I have noticed, are collectors.  We find treasures where others do not; we create art out of people's leftovers and leavings.  We see heaven in an empty bottle, Jesus in a synchronicitous song lyric, relief and comfort in an old poem.  For some of us, there are levels of discretion-- a bit of filtering that maybe true geniuses like Henry lacked.

On the other side of the field there are those who give things up-- those for whom loss is simply a non-notable occurrence--- like a meal.  In fact, these people probably couldn't tell you what they had for lunch.  I admire their lack of sentimentality-- their efficiency.  They are like a cup with a hole--- everything passes through, they acquire and delete in equal measure, they do not mourn or notice the things that keep me awake nights.  They try not to feel; some of them are extremely successful and clever.  Maybe they have figured out how loss is the end product of this life, in a way, and have learned how to manage this.  Waste management.  They are like dogs, in a way.  They wag their tale when they are being acknowledged, but they don't worry about their death-- or yours.

So I am a collector-- an intellectual hoarder, in a way.  I am obsessed with people like Henry Darger who died in abject hoarder-poverty while art collectors today fight over his fragile artwork, because he had the passion and imagination to create a bizarre and unique world in which he apparently 'fit'.  I pick up coins because I am intrigued by the cycle of life and possessions and the fact that maybe my dead ex-boyfriend might have once held this 1959 penny and used it to buy cigarettes he smoked in bed with me while we laughed and lived in our series of strange tableaus which have become now like an old photo-album that never existed but I am able to browse without technology at any moment.  These thoughts inform my life and my beliefs.

Last week I was offered a job.  Not a gig or a session, or even a writing assignment-- but a curatorial job, from the old life for which I was highly trained.  This corporate collector-- with maybe a billion dollar stockade of contemporary art--- had decided in a crisis that nothing he acquired over the last twenty years had any value for him.  He had decided to turn back the clock and sense his art the way he used to, when paintings were important, and not valued as investment-- when he used my guidance to buy younger under-acknowledged artists (like Henry Darger, at the beginning).  Of course I refused--- me, the starving musician/poet, the poster child for under-consumption, the author of the virtual and incredible guide to NYC on $4 a day.

So the guy calls me back, asks me to meet him for dinner, which I turn down, because I am so inappropriately clothed for the kind of places he frequents.  A coffee, maybe, I agree to-- -and he wants to come to my apartment next-- to see my 'stuff'… and he is now offering me what any normal person could not refuse-- I could fix my teeth, and buy a new apartment with this kind of money.  The job description: to sort through and find the true gems, to disperse the hundreds of useless overvalued works of art, to start clean with a Disneyland budget and buy whatever I valued.  And for all the women I ever advise-- if you want a guy to fall in love with you, just ignore him-- he'll go nuts if he's a narcissistic egomaniac-- the guy is now laying out offers of seven figures…. and I swear, it not only doesn't tempt me--- it makes me kind of sick.  I am terrible at Waste Management, I explain…. and the very reason I am a commodity for him is also the explanation for why I can never do this.

Okay.  I admit it was a little flattering.  It was a little tiny bit affirmative and really who can I confide in except my writerless companion who was making all kinds of obscene dissing remarks about the guy none of which made it past my throat, but maybe made the vision of that cash a little more suffocating.  Having to walk into galleries and watching the calculating Directors of Art Madness suck up to me in my used jeans.  Having a kind of power.  Having desperate artists with eviction notices beg me… but most of all, the fear of losing my voice, of losing my Dargeresque ambition.  Having been baptized into the religion of poverty-- and it is a kind of religion-- it requires faith and strength and compassion and charity and resistance… I just couldn't sell out.  Not for sushi, not for my teeth, not for whatever  costume or bejeweled truffle soup the art world has become.  I can look, I can think and feel and listen and collect what wanders irresistibly into my world where I am King and slave and secretary and CEO and have just enough discipline to know when my emotional ball of string is beginning to block the view.  Amen.