Thursday, September 24, 2015

Sister of Mercy

Did you ever forget the moon?  So absorbed in my earthly noise I have been -- my unfinished projects and my issues-- I completely neglected to look 'up'.  And there it was-- a little tired, but brave enough to follow me all the way up the East River Promenade tonight, reminding me to breathe-- and by the end of the path, venturing to glow on the stage of my admiration -- streaking across the water as it used to, working its magic and mischief.  After all, it's been so faithful and steadfast, this moon-- through its moods and phases-- tolerant while we invent galaxies and downgrade planets-- weathering sun storms and eclipses, asteroids and even human invasion, name-calling and privacy violations-- patient while we blame it for all sorts of things from floods to madness….

Being the Jewish 'Day of Atonement', the city felt just a little subdued.  The Pope will arrive tomorrow; I am obsessed with this. No matter how I steel myself, I cry watching the news coverage;  we are all so moved by his message of mercy (except Donald Trump, so far-- one meeting I could never envision-- Pride and false power vs. Humility and true spiritual majesty).   I thought about my old father-- the one that hates me, that will not forgive me-- the one who observes this day with ritualistic austerity, who asks for forgiveness for his sins, but does not seem to be able to forgive himself, or me.  Maybe that is key: I remind him of himself? His shortcomings?  His failures?  We are so different-- he, the war hero, the emotional stoic-- and me, words and confessions freely flowing through my music and art.  I danced, I sang, I asked questions and experimented and felt things out… I was punished and silenced-- as an adult, I was shunned.

My religion is one of forgiveness and compassion-- not many rituals or ceremonies, but a commitment to honesty and to listening-- to apologizing not to a deity but to those I may have hurt.  On the run along the river, I passed the old site of my son's pre-school-- some warm memories, and one terrible one.  I was trying to resurrect my musical career- went to Nashville for an overnight-- left him, with written explicit instructions, with his father.  One night.  In the morning I received a call from the pre-school; my son had arrived alone; he'd been unable to 'wake' his visiting Dad, got himself dressed and toddled off to school.  He was 3.  Anyone with a child knows how dangerous the city can be, and getting from home to school for a toddler is fraught with obstacles.  He managed to latch our front door behind him, but had forgotten a coat.  It was a rainy November day.  He crossed streets and Avenues, walked underneath the 59th St bridge.. on his own, smart as he was, he knew every landmark on the way.  He arrived a bit early-- (who tells time at 3?), determined but soaked and freezing.  The school contacted me, informed me if I did not appear by the end of the day, they were calling Child Services.  I managed to get on the next plane, left my career somewhere behind, and found my son happily playing, wearing the unfamiliar school spare overalls and sweatshirt… his Dad had been sleeping on the floor, he explained... he couldn't wake him… he didn't  want to be late, was afraid he'd done something wrong…

How do you forgive a parent whose substance use over-rides his obligation to a child?  I couldn't stop inventing scenarios of true horror and thanking our angels for watching over my boy.  I'd left my suitcase in Tennessee-- my husband (ex) was gone when we got home.  The fridge was filled with cans of Sam Adams; the house smelled of whiskey and puke.  There was a stain on the floor.  I'm not sure my son even remembers this incident… at a certain point he was unwilling to talk about anything personal; he drew his boundaries in.  For me, I don't understand how his father, whom we have not seen for some 20 years, and my own, who is rather absent, do not apologize.  I guess they cannot.  Difficult for me to forgive my father.  Somehow I prayed my husband would make things right, would exorcise his demons and be the man I loved, the father he had once longed to be.  But I had gained clarity regarding my primary responsibility and priorities.

For years my son endured some of the hardships of single parenthood-- small deprivations and painful exclusions from things he wanted to do; in the short run it hurt and I apologized, but I knew this was not lasting.  To a teenager, these material things are everything.  I feel guilty.  I used to feel guilty for everything in my house as a girl.  If the dogs misbehaved, it was my fault-- I loved them, failed to lock a door or put away a stick of butter; when my Dad was awakened and cranky, it was my fault… my fault that he withdrew into periods of silence, my fault that he yelled at my Mom.  My fault that he drank.  My son doesn't feel guilty.  At least there is that.

Further upriver in the moonlight I passed the hospital where my father once stayed and shunned my visits, and I feel angry.  There will be no reconciliation, no prodigal daughter.  I have seen too much and I understand now about shame and guilt, and about his failure to atone for these things.  But underneath the Atonement Moon tonight, I began to forgive myself for not forgiving my father, and I began to feel lighter.

I thought tonight, as I often do, about the story of Jacob and Esau, about the birthright and how in my own family my mother is no longer able to protect me and offer my hand for the blessing to the emotionally blind father.  It is amazing that just one touch, one blessing, was airtight in those days.  Now we have lawyers and wills and greedy petty fights among children for their piece of the financial blessing.  How did people have this kind of trust in those days-- this kind of faith and belief, the power of a word, even in the face of a swindle-- although it was a fated or maybe God-ordained 'switch'?  We don't know too much about Esau's future… but the legacy of Jacob was imperative.

Friday I am going to stand in Central Park for hours to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis.  I will listen to him talk about climate change and compassion, and about mercy.  I pray that somehow he will make the specter of Donald Trump and these overblown non-apologizers a little smaller.  I feel his love-- for children, for all people.  Suffer the little children to come to me, and forbid them not.  The Hispanic child who handed him the letter today, begging for her father's immigration status-- so brave.  And her father-- so proud and so loving of this girl who climbed over the fence to greet this Holy Man in whom she believes.  I pray that we will remember his message of love and his example of humility-- of compassion and forgiveness.  Forbid them not.

On Saturday Beyonce will take the stage in Central Park and all bets will be off.  I can't help thinking Jay-Z planned this juxtaposition, this ironic and slightly hideous synchronicity.  We have short memories, some of us.  We forget, we forbid.  We have a bad night, we recover, we clean up and go on, but some of us fail to recognize what we leave in our wake-- even the one we created without consciousness, without clear brains.  Someone will suffer for this twisted legacy,  the flip side of a blessing, which all too many of us have had to endure until we learn not just to forgive but to ask forgiveness.  To look-- up, down, back and underneath us.  To see, to shine.  

This wise Atonement Moon changed me tonight; even the light in my apartment seems different.  I am trying to let go of impossible wishes and to tend to my own dreams.  And when I 'see' that I have made a wrong turn, there is somewhere… even when our parents and lovers and friends fail us… some version of mercy-- within or without, a kind of embrace-- the brilliant broken moonlight streaking across the black river, like the heart of Pope Francis,  shining.


Monday, September 14, 2015

Caste Party

A few weeks ago I found a set of keys on Madison Avenue.  Actually, it was a Louis Vuitton key ring with several sets of keys attached-- way too big for anyone's pocket, and it was 11:30 PM.  I looked around-- there was an upscale restaurant 2 doors away; maybe someone was getting into a taxi and they fell out; you'd think they might notice-- there were enough keys to open every door in an average apartment complex.  So I went into the restaurant.  Of course, I was wearing my usual neighborhood going-to-the-gym attire-- old sweats and a hoodie.   The bartender and hostess gave me the frozen smile; a very curt 'no, no one lost their keys.'  The bum's rush.  Maybe, I suggested, you want to make a discrete table-to-table announcement.  Most of the remaining diners looked a little loosened and relaxed.  Maybe you should keep them here, in case someone should call in, looking.  But nothing doing.

So I stalled a bit-- paced up and down the block, looking for dog walkers, anyone who seemed searching for lost objects.  And nothing happened.  I went into a nearby building, spoke to the super and doorman who seemed disinterested, left my phone number.  Next day, fully 24 hours later, I got a call from the super who said there were posted signs along the block asking about a set of keys.  I went back to the scene,  took down the number, went back home (I still don't carry a cell) and left a voicemail.  Next morning I get a call from a woman who happens to be a household-name real-estate superstar-- we see her on television all the time, literally… and she is in Palm Springs, showing some property, but she must have dropped her keys while she was getting into her chauffeur-driven car… on the way to her chartered flight-- and she just KNEW someone would have picked them up because isn't it such a fantastic neighborhood I live in?  And please drop them at HER restaurant-- where the employees two nights ago had let me know with their eloquent body language that even 60 seconds was wearing out my welcome in their establishment.  Her driver will pick them up.  End of conversation.  No thank you… no 'what is your name'?  Nada.

Before I make my drop, I look on her website at the several exclusive listings she, Mme. Chairman, is showing personally… a 5th Ave. penthouse, 2 triple sized mansions near the Metropolitan Museum, and 3 or 4 neighborhood brownstones.  Yes, the numbers are labeled on each set of keys.  Here I am, with access to the richest homes in upper Manhattan-- a free pass-- information that could make any of these owners cringe or withdraw their multi-million dollar properties from this superstar with the slippery fingers who was undoubtedly too busy with her iPhone and her champagne glass-to-go to notice that she'd left a thief's winning lottery ticket on the sidewalk.

I am careful not to overdress for my return trip to drop the keys with the hostess who is equally smile-less when I approach her.  I drop the first name of her boss, tell her the driver will retrieve them.  Does she apologize or offer me a Bellini, a slice of their famous tiramisu, a glass of wine?  She does not.  Do I rat out her snotty attitude to her boss?  I did not.  She is, after all, despite her dress and perfect hair, working class like me, and who knows what favors she's had to perform to get this job which puts her in direct line-of-sight of the eligible playboys of Madison Avenue, married and single?

And that is the end of my little upper-east-side good-samaritan fractured fairy-tale of the month.  And of course, this woman wouldn't stop to think that I haven't had a restaurant meal in literally years, that I had to stretch when my son was a teenager to satisfy his appetite for pizza but mostly I scrimped and economized and my weekly food budget was equal to maybe an average appetizer in her restaurant.  My Dad wouldn't stop to think, when I gave him a gift and he tossed it, that I'd had to forego something that month-- not just a luxury, because there are no luxuries-- but something like a metro card, which means walking everywhere for a couple of weeks--- not so bad, but time-consuming.

In 1976 I found a wallet in a late-night taxi.  As the driver dropped me off, I told him I'd call the owner; there was a driver's license and we had paper phonebooks in those days.  I spoke to someone; gave my address… a man picked up the wallet next day, and left an envelope.  I opened it.  The wallet had belonged to the great Paul Simon.  The note said thank you, with 3 crisp $50's.  That was a week's pay back then.

Have times changed?  Have we forgotten about people actually walking and talking and courtesy and compassion and humanitarian kindness, appreciation, gratitude?  Not that we do things to be thanked, or for 'credit' or reward.  It is just a simple acknowledgment.  A tiny debt to repay-- so easily-- with just a smile or some words.  Would the current version of Paul Simon have his assistant text me or leave me a ticket for a performance?

The dirty little secret about New York City now is that there is an existing caste system.  There are instant start-up millionaires and lottery winners, but for the most part, it's a sort of a boys' club or hedge fund.   For the underdogs it's incredibly difficult to manage to buy even a tiny apartment anywhere.  For the honest working class, there is a lot of hard work and not so many rewards.  Illness or a catastrophe wipes us out, costs us a home, dignity.  For those on welfare, it's a different story.  People with benefit cards take life a little more for granted, and if they feel like using a high-interest  credit card to buy an engagement ring they can't afford, so be it.

I took my boyfriend to a special birthday dinner one year; he was dying to eat at Cafe des Artistes before it closed.  I worked extra days, hours… made the reservation… we dressed to the nines.  I memorized the menu, dreamed about what I'd eat… and when we both put in our orders, our tired waiter informed us there was no lamb or fish left… in fact, there was really only the chicken and the pasta.  I literally wanted to cry.  I could scarcely eat, and had a terrible night.  We quarreled.  I felt defeated and pathetic and cranky.  Unfinished.

Corporations have blocks of season tickets for sports.  Box seats.  For me, when my son was small, it was an enormous sacrifice to get us birthday Knicks tickets.  The seats often sucked and once there was a drunk heckler next to us who spilled beer and ruined the night.  Sometimes there was a column blocking the court so we'd have to keep our heads going side to side and missed half the action.  If you're a celebrity you get an unobscured view.  Sometimes you don't even show up.  Somewhere in the stadium is a kid in an upper deck who will never again see a game, live.  He will remember this game for the rest of his life, even though he can scarcely make out the players because his Mom doesn't have binoculars.

On 9/12/2001, the day after 'the' 9/11, we were called in to play music in Times Square… mostly for the exhausted firemen and policemen who came uptown for breaks.  They were whacked and messed up and ate listlessly in their heavy gear while they listened to our blues.   There were a few tourist families stranded in New York City on aborted vacations-- one especially who befriended me.  They'd come from Kingston, Jamaica, using their life savings to take their 3 young children to see the Lion King.  The kids knew every lyric to every song.  Of course there was no performance-- there was no return flight.  They were stuck in a hotel they might not be able to pay for, for an extra week… they'd run out of money and were living on hot dogs.  I got them what I could from the kitchen… the kids drank cokes.  They never sat down-- they couldn't afford to order-- but the music was free.  And they danced-- night after night-- the parents with each other, like a couple, face to face, or with the kids, as they could, with soul and love.   The children enjoyed the music; they called it 'the party'.  Finally, after about a week,  flights resumed and they left.  I think of them every 9/11,  along with the first responders and the victims… the sadness… I see them in the lasers at night, dancing.   The children are grown now… a tiny minor financial tragedy after-ripple of the 9/11 disaster… Really non-remarkable, but in their lives assuredly the experience they will remember and relate to their grandchildren.

My son used to ask me if poor people are happier than rich people.  I think they are, subtracting the bitterness. In cultures without this urban 'caste' system-- without the Tiffanys and the $1,000 football tickets-- it's easier.  But I will never forget the tiny girl from Kingston, with her colored barrettes and dreadlocks, and her little plastic Lion King charm bracelet, leaning against my knees, plucking my bass on the break, rocking her head back and forth, singing to me softly 'It's enough to make Kings and Magga-bonds (sic) believe the very best'.