Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Walkin' Blues

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.



Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Goodwill Hunting

One of my bad angels has been playing tricks on me.  Beside the trash can on my corner, she's been leaving small piles of books-- old books, from the 40's, 50's and 60's, the way I love them… Mayakovsky, Celine, Rebecca West-- Chomsky, lectures of Nabokov... some days it's Marx, Engels-- Freud, Jung.   I am compelled of course to bend down, sort through them, be observed by my neighbors as a trash-picker.  Sometimes I explain-- plead-- Take these orphaned treasures… someone!  They will be rained on, spat on, trampled, peed on by over-pampered and un-knowing dogs.  I already own nearly every single one; I pride myself on my home library-- this is my family, my furnishings, my confidants and mentors.  So far I've had one 'taker'… a woman from Boston,  wedding-dress shopping with her daughter, who took pity on The Letters of Virginia Woolf after I guaranteed it.

Moments like these, I realize how I am perceived and perhaps scorned by my neighbors--- or not.  I give it little thought, am inclined to keep the lowest possible profile in my old building anyway, where for me the most venerable tenants are the former fashion editor of the New York Times and her photographer husband, who, 60 years ago, were the red-carpet 'it-couple' of Manhattan.   They were surely omitted from the A and B list of last night's annual Costume Institute gala-- even though their knowledge of fashion history, art, photography, culture in general vastly overshadows that of our new celebrity stars.  How many of the red carpet walkers have actually been to the Museum to view the art, to investigate the sources of the classic designers?  I had a glimpse of Beyonce's typically disappearing dress.  Maybe I'm just old and bitter, but is this not the Emperor's New Clothes in all its finery?  She is essentially naked, with a few wisps of blingy fabric clinging to her.  Much like her performances-- sex and strippery-- with a very few references to actual dance and music.  And if you get close, she is 'lined' with a sort of gut-compressing body-stocking--- not even her actual skin.   And really, no matter how many trainers you have,  do we really want to see what her husband maybe doesn't even look at anymore?

A woman visiting from Paris mentioned to me the other day that New York women had lost their style. Guilty, I say, with great gusto.  Most of them, as far as she can see, are walking around in their gym clothes.  Paris women do not do this.  And then these underdressed women overcompensate at events… they over-dress, over-coif,  wear excessive make-up and jewelry.

For me, like the music culture and the myriads of art galleries, it's hard to keep up with fashion.  Quantity has certainly replaced quality as the statistic of choice.   Young designers have achieved status and success that used to be reserved for the very select few.  Old established firms have been re-branded and taken over by another generation of fashionistas; I wonder if their predecessors would approve.  It all seems to be symptomatic of the creeping epidemic of cheap blingy competitive greed culture eradicating the old Manhattan 'facade' of cool casual deco solidity and replacing it with cheap candy-coated money.

When I was in high school, I had a kind of style.  I wore capes and high-laced boots and extremely short leather and suede skirts.  I made clothes out of vintage material, and I re-processed ice skates and work boots.  For events, I had a couple of prototype Betsey Johnson slinky knits.  They were unique and had a presence.  These days,  at late middle age, I've been through many phases and have learned the value of living my life as I choose, and paying the price.  My friends have branded me a financial anorexic.  I buy nothing, live on $4 a day, mostly, and like Bukowski, I don't discard things until they are utterly unusable.  Bukowski had a kind of anti-style.  He hated shopping, as I do.  Stores embarrass me-- I feel sorry for the salespeople, and sorry for the buyers who pile merchandise in baskets with a kind of desperation.  Thrift shops are filled with things that have never been worn-- sad garments that have lost their appeal and never served a purpose.  I pity these things.  I also have an extremely small carbon footprint.  I don't drive; I only use public transportation.   I don't have air conditioning and I don't buy plastic water bottles.  I do buy art.  I starve for this.  Literally, sometimes.  I also starve for the possibility of creating something that might be considered 'art'.  I feel sorry for artists who are brilliant.  I feel less sorry for artists who are bad,  and think there should be some means of clearing the field, of eliminating the handicapped so the gifted can move forward with a little clarity and support.

The day before yesterday, I went to look at an art auction preview; there was really nothing absolutely compelling, and I switched gears and went to browse a Goodwill store.  As usual, there were the book hoarders, the nerds with iPhones price-checking to see if they could turn a profit on an old record or vintage turntable.  Then there were the smelly women shoppers--- the lonely, neglected and bitter husbandless breed who haunt these thrift shops desperate for a conversation, a chance meeting, an argument.   They criticize and malign not just the goods but their fellow shoppers.  One of these pongy women told me, after I declined to rat on someone who was tearing into an unpriced 'pile', that my apathy is exactly what Hitler wanted from me.  I fear these people sometimes; I have much more in common with them than with my rich neighbors who have contempt for the poor and badly dressed.  I fear their smell, and have to confess I find comfort sometimes in my old quilts and over-laundered sheets.  I tolerate the ghosts of lovers and the soft pliable pages of used books with old cracking bindings and inscriptions of people who are long-dead.

I prize soul over style-- can't imagine Otis Redding or Sam Cooke or Robert Johnson on a red carpet-- maybe an old wide-planked wood floor.  Old leather is comforting.  Old friends, old buildings.  I am soft and pliant like my books-- no longer shiny.  I also feel bad about the people that don't get to sit in with my band and wanted to, I feel guilty for the people who come out and buy more drinks than they can afford, I feel terrible that I failed to buy the Mexican kitchen staff their midnight Cinco de Mayo tequila shots last night,  and I am devastated that the Nigerian painter went to the wrong show and was not on the guest-list.  I feel embarrassed that people must buy my music and books, even when they spend the cost of 100 cds on ridiculous shoes that don't fit.   And I am so sorry to the kind man who keeps offering to take me for incredible meals--I no longer have enough spare gratitude for such things and a decent black coffee is really more than I can accept.

Who am I?  I am someone's mother, and used to be someone's daughter.  I am less prized than formerly as someone's lover.  I play other people's music in old clothes and other people's discarded shoes.  I ride home on the early morning subway with poems in my head and songs in my heart, some of which I will never be able to record.  I will never walk any red carpet, unless it is one stained with my own blood.  Last night a fellow musician told me that he'd listened to my album multiple times--- that it was unique and original and I had my own 'style' of writing.  He'll never know how that feels like an award, a trophy.  One listener.  It is enough.