Besides of course the unprocessable Charlotte murders, the now-weekly incidents of terrorism, the daily cruelties and injustices which stick in my throat like indigestible stale bread of communion, the story that has haunted my dreams for weeks is the flooded zoo in Georgia. The image of these bewildered animals roaming the muddy roads-- hiding, hunting-- the bloody white tiger which was shot by Georgian authorities because it killed a man… the utter incongruity of lions and bears, walking the streets of a city unaccompanied… looking for a context.
I remember once visiting a zoo in Italy when I was young….the animals weren't protected and respected the way they were here in the Bronx. People threw food and objects at the bears and laughed at them. One bear seemed to be genuinely 'simple' or mentally deficient-- obviously these things must happen, among animals-- and like a pathetic clown was making fun of itself, for the audience. It was intolerable for me, an animal lover…
There is something really sad about a zoo….I mean, these animals are raised in captivity, kept relatively safe-- but like our dogs they are flabby and lazy, and lose their instincts and skills. They are not quick enough to hunt in the wild, to run, to mate with true passion, to be fierce. Like our pet turtles and fish in tanks… we buy man-made symbols of their habitat, but their artificial world is a bizarre little replica of nature, and their leashless existence without predators is abnormal.
So facing a sort of natural disaster, with no one to protect them, they were suddenly dumped into a world which is not their world, but a civilized city, also turned chaotic by the flooding-- bewildered, relying on keepers and caretakers for their needs they were helpless and terrified. Some of them, using the only defense available, were hunted down as protection. Killed through no fault of their own--- looking for some reminder of their environment-- trees, a place to nest, a rooftop--the hippo swimming in a city square, a baby bear clinging to an air conditioning unit, a hyena on a man's balcony… And some of them still wandering, starving, wondering… the inventory at a zoo of this nature is difficult… unknown deaths and escapes in this kind of situation when human coffins are floating freely in the streets, from the waters rising. Who protects us, in a natural disaster? Noah's ark of course comes to mind, but what of the non-chosen animals, bellowing helplessly as the waters rose?
The other bit of information from this relatively minor crisis was the local assessment of the citywide damage-- which looked extensive and devastating--- at $18 million. In Manhattan, this does not even cover an average luxury penthouse renovation. Maybe a very minor Picasso painting. Context.
It's been a strange year-- train accidents, earthquakes… that same night I learned about the Georgian zoo animals, I listened to one of the Everest climbers who escaped death from the quake-triggered avalanche. Random occurrences… people who seem rather calm. And then there is the pedestrian-- just crossing a street… who gets smashed by an out-of-control SUV, who left her house in the morning with a list, and maybe unmatched underwear and dishes in the sink… and never went back… who was judged not by her accomplishments but by what she left undone. This terrifies me… all the loose endings, all the unfinished stories.
On Mondays when I come across town after my gig, there is one bus driver only on the route. I get to know these guys-- their habits, their loneliness-- this is a strange time-- hours of back and forth with a handful of passengers and often an empty bus. The current one has this sort of OCD thing-- he floors it through the park so he just makes the light on Fifth Ave. It's a little dangerous, and I can feel his adrenaline pump, his heart rate soar-- it's a little bit of a thrill. I don't know what he'd do if a cab was pushing the downtown light on Fifth and he had to brake suddenly or crash. I guess this gets him through the night. One day he'll be replaced. One day I might get replaced, or be gored by a lost zoo animal. WIll he wonder about me? Doubtful.
We all notice how animals elicit world sympathy the way people often do not. The Save The Whales and Tigers movements seemed to have been celebrity-embraced for many, many years before the Hunger Project. Youtube hits for cute animals or hippos helping wounded zebras, empathetic elephants-- are viral. How many of these viewers and 'likers' actually bring a meal to an older person right in their building who may be hungry or unable to eat from loneliness?
I am someone who misses things and people. I was born with the kind of hole in my heart that can't be fixed. Things get stuck in there. Playing music relieves it occasionally-- and ironically, love does not. It's kind of a reminder-- like a place where I can feel the sand falling through, the tide going out… some one else's pain waxing and waning. It may be my tragic flaw. It infuses everything I do and maybe it is a bit of a guarantee of failure. I have noticed the more successful of my friends don't feel so much anymore. My neighbor's new book was touted as brilliant and edgy… it was tough and skillful… but quite honestly it left me cold--- like house music. It lacked humanity. It was affectedly eccentric and plodding-- like still frames of a wave coming in… no fluidity or life. I didn't care. He didn't care. It was like a book-show. But it drew rave reviews.
Even my stepmother who suicided last summer-- she was tough. She was an artist. Still, I think in the end she feared her own heart. It was flooded, like mine often is--- when I see two people tearfully parting at a train station, or my friend kissing her husband goodbye in his coffin last month-- these things wreck me and displace me and some nights I can't find my way home. I miss everyone I ever loved and every bus driver and every wave I witnessed or did not witness on every shore of every country. I miss my old dogs who have passed on and I find it unbearable that the ones on the street now won't be here in a few years. I turn to my music and I think about BB, and Johnny, and John Lee-- not one of them seemed less than tough, but they were all singing about letting go and what was gone, long before they got old.
Everyone passes through here--- like an infantry of pathetic soldiers who have no control over their destiny, except they will not return, they will not. Gravestones, monuments, old scrapbooks… they remind... but the proverbial buck stops there.
I asked my son to reserve a bench in the park for me.. .so when I am gone, someone will maybe bring a book and read next to my name. Of course he won't do this, because he was born with a strong heart and knows that any bench-sitters will have an iPhone, or a can of beer and some fast food, or they will need a place to lie down and pass the night covered in trash bags and old newspaper. Raccoons will bring their garbage and pigeons will shit on it. For him the escaped animals in Georgia (he seemed to think it was the American south) were like a Carnival. Carnivals feel sad to me-- the people, the animals-- like the depression version of theatre and drama-- a sense of old cigarette smoke and sweaty T-shirts. Cheap food and paper money. The scent of failure hanging in the air with the popcorn and cotton candy.
My son is good at throwing things away-- at moving apartments, at not venturing too deeply into dangerous flood waters. At winning. He can knock over things with a baseball and win an armful of stuffed animals and then leave them on a bench. Maybe my bench.