Friday, July 17, 2015


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.

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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.

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