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.