Saturday, November 28, 2015

Angst-giving

Does anyone else have one of those friends who is always lecturing about something or other?  This week it's  'New York is the next target-- do you have your emergency water kit and your cash stash and your canned foods and gas mask and LED flashlights all prepared?'  Or it's physical fitness tips-- the superiority of kettle bells, the uselessness of cardio-- dietary guidelines, health warnings.  One of those people who lives from sound byte to sound byte, who reads one mediocre article and is suddenly an expert, who wants to convert you when he is going to be a defaulting believer within weeks-- ?….On to the next trend...

These are the same people who take offense if you reply or contradict or discuss or point out (useless-- they cannot 'listen') whatever-- and despite their enthusiastic advice, they are miserable and lost-- jumping from bandwagon to bandwagon, feeling renewed and reborn for a day or two before they realize or do not realize that they are the same clueless, unhappy, physically unfit mess they were before, during, and after, but somehow convincing you of their superior wisdom seems tantamount to having it.

If they happen to show up for your Thanksgiving dinner, they are always delivering food-channel-worthy monologues and recipes even though your other guests are busy eating and drinking and enjoying despite the annoying analysis by this person who of course doesn't contribute to your meal, or if they do, it's something completely incompatible and odd which they defend and promote by elaborating on its historic and religious and nutritional value, and how it's gluten-free and vegan and futuristic and essential, even though it looks and smells awful and remains undisturbed on every single plate at the end of the meal.  Does the maker notice?  He does not.

Every Thanksgiving I've become a little more skilled at heading these people off in advance by pleading a gig or an entire NBA team coming to pioneer a city-home holiday which I'd won in a charity auction-- spending the day at the food kitchen, a chicken pox epidemic, a broken stove, or all of the above.  I stop answering the phone a week before the holiday and tilt my head sympathetically when one sobs to me that they have no invitation, failing to consider the reason for this, and of course failing to consider hosting their own meal, because they are not a chef, but a professional and skilled guest/food-critic. Not to mention an eater.

I'm committed to the role of host, because as a musician I rarely have the time or resources to give home parties, and I do it for my son, remembering how much I hated childhood Thanksgivings at an aunt's home where I hated the food, the folding chairs at the overcrowded children's table, my uncomfortable sashed dresses and mary-janes, and the abominably unfamiliar dishes emerging course after course relentlessly from my aunt's staffed kitchen.  Not to mention the sideward parental glares admonishing me to sit up, stop whispering and playing with food, etc.

My son is allowed to binge on football, come and go as he pleases, invite whomever to our table, eat without reprimand and with joy, because he loves to eat.  No surprises ever on the menu-- food is traditional, the way he likes it, and it's a happy family day, despite the exhausting and elaborate preparation it requires.  It's a ritual in our household where there are few-- a tradition in a non-traditional family.  Our 'Grace', on the other hand, is democratic, spontaneous and loose.  There is no guilt, hopefully… just food and no rules.

This year, on each of my numerous trips to various shops and stands for ingredients, there were more than the usual number of panhandlers--- not just the calculating ones who know they get extra sympathy on the holiday, although the warm weather didn't help their plight.  But there was one man I'd not seen before who'd been sleeping by the 96th Street subway for days-- no sign, no cup, except the one I placed.  His skin was blackened as though he'd been sleeping on the subway tracks in a fire, his face was leathery and wrinkled and impossible to date with accuracy.  He smelled of stale alcohol-breath and tobacco and unwashed skin.  I watched my neighbors getting their wine and champagne deliveries in cases, their neatly boxed food orders arriving, their kitchen staff running up and down, unpacking brand new Williams and Sonoma appliances and kitchen aids… then I'd go back down the road and pass my subway sleeper… and the whole scenario began to seem to me like a bad living cartoon version of America or New York at the moment-- the have-so-muches and the have-nothings.

As I broiled and basted my turkey-- not from Pathmark this year, because my old store-- part of the Thanksgiving ritual-- the Harlem institution I attended regularly-- has been bought by the same people who have built that hideous too-thin-to-be-phallic building at 57th and Park.  What will become of the overnight shufflers with shopping carts who roll up and down the aisles until dawn, chattering and keeping warm until the sun comes up in winter?  Will 125th Street become the next billionaire's row?  I put out my food, lit my thrift shop candles, put on some cds for guests and enjoyed my warm home, which seems palatial when I considered the cardboard roof of my sleeper.

One of my neighbors this year invited herself to my meal-- she has a new puppy and it requires sooo much work, she explained, with her other dogs and her horses… but she can't leave it for more than an hour at a time… she'll be over at 7, she promised… even though my dinner is scheduled at 8-- but NO, she exclaimed! She has to be in bed at 9!  She also happens to be a Psychotherapist-- one of those people who cannot 'see' themselves because they are so busy analyzing?  I asked her if she'd bring the subway sleeper… she could use her psychoanalytic skills maybe to convince him to stop using drugs and drinking and to seek help?  Anyway, only then did she decide to forego Thanksgiving.

As I listened to various versions of 'Grace'… I thought about how this year I was a little less thankful, a little more bitter, and a little more inclined to try to focus on the 'giving'.  I served the food, tried to pacify the vegans and vegetarians, tried not to inject any moralism into a meal, but I don't feel like doing my 'leftover' Saturday dinner for my lecturer and my second round eaters.  Neither did I bring a plate to my sleeper, like a guilty Christian, because I have noticed the food kitchens are overflowing with helpers at this holiday who are all too willing to fulfill their charitable quota in this civilized way.  Then they forget.  His issue is more complex-- he is not willing to communicate or move; he does not smile.  He does not receive; he does not complain or speak or ingratiate or beg.  He certainly does not lecture, but he is teaching me something, here.

The streets seemed clean, yesterday-- the can and bottle-collectors had a worrisome day off; hopefully the overflow of extra Friday garbage would get them through the weekend.  At one UES church meal, they charged $35 to keep the homeless away.  At the annual AA marathon meal, the homeless had begun to invade… the recovering attendees were complaining… Another of my fortunate friends spent her Wednesday night at a soup kitchen, before flying off on holiday, and in the photo she emailed, with her plastic shower cap, serving the smiling needy, I swear I recognized one of my neighbors in the bread line, pointing at the creamed corn-- the one with the 12-room apartment overlooking Central Park whom I've encountered haggling with the fruit vendor on the corner.  I've zoomed in and blown up the photo several times, and I can almost swear it is this man, taking and not giving, failing to say Grace, demanding his due side dishes, lecturing.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

American Tourister

When I graduated high school, my parents gave me a set of luggage.  It was a curious gift-- not anything I'd ever thought about.  Maybe it symbolized my coming-of-age Bon Voyage.  For me, I couldn't think of anything I had to put in there.  They seemed like things that adults had-- practical things, and felt like a sort of unfulfilled promise I'd made, accepting them.  In those days they hadn't invented wheels-- these cases were heavy and cumbersome. But I had no choice.  I packed one for college, and it was a pain to stow in our tiny crowded dorm rooms.

My college boyfriend gave me a puppy at school--- she grew up to be this graceful deer-like German Shepherd mix who followed us around, slept outside my classroom buildings, etc.  In those days there was a whole hippy culture of campus dogs.  Anyway, one day she was kidnapped by a hideous character who crashed parties and stalked girls.  I followed her trail of blood to the parking lot where he must have let her out, after slashing her.  We desperately tied ripped up sheets around her wound and tearfully hitchhiked to the nearest Vet who promised to cure her, but didn't.  Her violent death haunted me for years.  We collected her cold body, wrapped her in my coat, and buried her inside my blue suitcase at the Jersey Shore.  She'd loved the surf, the beach; she was so beautiful and elegant, and had used my case as a bed on many occasions-- curled up in there, with the blue satin lining.

Sometime during college I met the great love of my life--- that breed of bad angel with a jagged halo and a guitar who steals your heart clean.  It was a wrecking and passionate story… and in the end, each of us went our separate ways--me to New York, he to his childhood girlfriend who heartbreakingly stood by and suffered his indiscretions.  Once I'd seen her--- she begged me-- I couldn't bear her sorrow.  Anyway, the night before their wedding, he showed up-- drove down from Boston, with a packed suitcase in the trunk.  Let's elope, he said.  We'll get married and take the Canadian railroad to Vancouver.  The suitcase was half empty.  I was overcome.  We sat up all night in a diner, drinking hot chocolate, planning our lives… and in the morning, I said goodbye.  He was late for his church wedding, but he showed up.  All that next week I kept thinking about the suitcase; we'd always thrown our stuff into the back of the car, like gypsies… but that suitcase was so new-- so 'adult'-- I felt the same burden I'd felt  at my graduation.  And thinking about the suitcases he no doubt had left with his wife… packed with what might have become relics of the death of marriage… things she would never have been able to open… This helped me find some sort of sad closure-- and besides, I had New York to explore…

My husband was a British journalist I'd met briefly who flew over to see me on a whim with no suitcase at all -- just the suit he had on, and a couple of books.  He brought flowers and came every weekend to renew his proposal.  One of my older and wiser woman friends remarked that if her husband had ever once looked at her the way this man looked at me--well, she'd die happy.  So I gradually let him pack up my things and carry them back to London, piece by piece.  I followed, with no suitcase-- and married him, had his baby, as I promised.  My last night in London involved his tossing my packed case from the window of our perfect flat, after a typically alcohol-fueled soliloquy about my going on the road, my imagined indiscretions--- whatever.  A lorry ran it over, and I flew PanAm from Heathrow for the last time.  After a few more dramatic episodes, he exited the marital stage, final act.  My son has not heard from his father in 20 years.  I left everything in the flat, including empty suitcases.

For years I used to see this old scruffy man with a beat-up cheap guitar in the subway.  He had one of those little portable seats and a red-plaid suitcase with a zipper--- the kind you'd see in a Hayley Mills movie from the 1950's.  He had piles of cassettes, hats, scarves, papers in that suitcase which he also used to hold the coins and dollars people threw in.  He sang like a saint, with this sandpapery edge in the lower registers, and his eyes watered.  The last time I saw him,  gaffers tape was holding that suitcase together.  His eyes were cloudy and his face looked drawn and hollow.  I wished I knew where he went at night, with that suitcase and his guitar… he didn't talk much.

There is something sad for me when I see people with luggage… coming, going-- saying goodbye, leaving something or someone behind.  Traveling is happy for tourists--- but for me I can't help thinking I'll never see these streets again, these buildings, this airport… I hate packing and I hate unpacking.  I hate endings.  Maybe that's why I seem to stay up all night until the morning--- so I know the light has come, and I'm safely into tomorrow.  Today I helped this Italian girl find the room she is renting in New York City so she can pursue her dream of becoming a singer.  She was so filled with hope, with her heavy suitcases and her new shoes.  I left her in front of the YMCA; I watched while they frisked and searched her things for some long minutes before they finally showed her the elevators to her overpriced little cubicle-cell which I hope is not too depressing, where she will unpack her dreams and hopefully find her way.  She asked me for my number, to have a coffee, but somehow I couldn't bear another New York City heartbreak, another sad ending, another unfinished story on ragged old papers of memory stuffed inside a suitcase.