I took one of those epic late-afternoon city walks with my niece last week… from the new Whitney Museum all the way up to East Harlem. She observed that wherever she goes, there is inevitably someone crying on the street. I'd definitely seen some criers at the Whitney-- really, really sad versions of performance art, as if the vibrant exhibitions, the architectural spectacle and the hoards of tourists and hipsters weren't enough. We found ourselves dodging these traveling little passion-plays and mimes who seriously cheapened the art. I pitied them-- they were embarrassing, amateurish and annoying. In a city like New York, where the blocks are dense with every kind of entertainment and scam artist, the last thing anyone wants is to bring this carnival inside.
Outside there are the girls and their cell-phones-- gesticulating, yelling… boyfriend drama… couples coming together and coming apart… hungry, cranky babies… the Greek-drama variety of street beggars who screw up their face into a bawl to make us all dig deeper into our pockets. Something just incriminating and wrong about this; no one of us really wants to 'wear' our tragedies in public. Crying is an intimate and private privilege. It has a reason, a story-- an aura. On the street there is way too much competition.
My niece's current issues are with her family-- the difficult declaration of independence. I know this family: they are, like so many others, way too invested in emotional incest-- in relying on their own members for acknowledgement and the American family version of 'happiness'. She is sensitive and struggling and she cries. She wants to break free, but she is not quite ready. Crying is a symptom of metamorphosis from one stage to the next. On the street, criers are hyper-aware of one another, the way addicts and users recognize each other. For me, it can be contagious. I am way softer than I would like and any kind of sorrow usually elicits my sympathy.
Our walk evolved from practical transportation into a sort of journey where you feel swept into something larger, and you can't stop. We are different people-- her landmarks were very different from mine. But one thing we had in common-- neither of us could bear to turn down the parade of panhandlers. The stories-- the props-- people hadn't eaten in weeks, newly-released prisoners, veterans, fathers of handicapped children-- a woman with a lump on her face that looked like she'd sewn a golf ball into her cheek--she needed $7,000 to have it removed and she was a mere $1,200 from her goal. I have often to remind myself that these people are choosing to be beggars… and feel more sympathy for the couples kissing and separating at the train station-- for my friend whose business partner was getting on a plane after a casual goodbye, even though they'd been lovers and her heart was no doubt breaking a little. I thought about another friend who refuses to hear about illness, funerals-- he seems so hard, so insulated and unfeeling-- but maybe he is stretched so thin, is so brittle, so fragile, that anything will set him off, and he must step over the criers and avoid the beggars to keep himself from melting.
When I was growing up, we had a black housekeeper. She came most days to clean, to do laundry. She was generous and large-spirited. She sang while she worked and brought little packs of M&Ms everyday. My Mom left her $40 a week underneath the kitchen radio. She called me funny nicknames and she loved me like one of her children. I often sneaked downtown to her 'hood where there were no white people… where there was no air conditioning but plenty of shared kool-aid and lemonade. She sang in her church choir and sang Odetta and Etta and Aretha while she ironed. The songs made her cry. When I was older I played her my records and she listened and we sang along, together. She knew what was good, and she knew exactly who she was and where she was going. I trusted her; In a way I loved her more than my own mother. She was safe, she was strong, she was pure and clear and had answers. I followed her to church a few times-- the only white face in the congregation, and she introduced me as her child. People sang and cried and testified. She played me my first B. B. King record, and it was like musical crying. The Blues, she explained. I couldn't really grasp it-- blue was a color, it was black people's music (she called herself a Negro). But it was so good.
I often feel that my sense of being loved and accepted as a child was born in that church; that somehow the music was the blood and the mortar and the glue. My family was too emotionally tangled to be able to let go-- they were figuring out how to be a family, but seemed always to be reading someone else's instructions. I shared this with my niece, who is too preoccupied with her issues to really listen. I thought it might help because really, we grow up and find that what we need is out in the world, and what we need to become is outside our little fucked-up family circle-- even when they resent and hate you for this… and the antidote is not in substances or a bottle or pharmaceutical, or psychiatric-- but in whatever we embrace and become.
When I got home I learned B.B. King had passed away, maybe even while I was walking and listening and counting the criers, and hearing that first vinyl in my head….'When I wake up Early in the morning /Blues and Troubles all around my bed'... and the sound of that guitar like nothing I had ever heard before then, and him calling someone Baby, with the record noise. Young B.B. with his pompadour on the record cover, 'wondering what is gonna become of me'…
And what 'becomes' is that all these people have passed-- my housekeeper, the singers in her church-- Odetta, B.B. and the rest. But what a rich life they had, some of them, with their sorrows and blues and rough nights. The criers on the street and in their rooms must remember that their end comes all too soon, and growing up and leaving is painful. We all weep and mourn in our own way-- we are all criers-- but more important, we must try to reach out and listen and live, and leave when we must, and love the ones we're with, but not too much... and care, but not too much… and get up and start walking some days when we're not sure where we're going-- just walk out that door and see, really see the landmarks on the way, and brush ourselves off and sing.