Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Smoke and Mirrors

We approach the end of the year all too quickly, it seems… the downhill of December has its momentum, and try as we may, the new year is waiting like a hungry mouth to swallow things we are maybe not ready to let go.  I no longer shop for Christmas-- it's enough to manage basics, my son will maybe bring me a tree;  this is my holiday-- sitting by the colored lights in the semi-dark, collecting inventory moments.  It's been so unseasonably warm-- but there will be a price to pay.  On the news they spoke of a stagnant air mass-- that is an ugly description.  Photos of people in Beijing wearing cheap masks as though this will protect them from breathing in the terrible smog.  For someone who is sad in China, this blur of oppressive air and being confined inside must be unbearable.  I have such a tiny carbon footprint here-- my friends tease me.  No car, no taxis-- I scarcely use a dishwasher.  Still no cell phone-- I am often in semi-darkness, by the glow of my computer, writing-- sometimes the lights of the city outside are enough.  Gigs are bright and loud-- I love them, but I retreat.

Lately I have a sense of my neighbors' proximity-- as though the walls are getting thinner… like I am being invaded, slightly.  I do not know the new people, I do not really want to know the new people-- my old neighbors were interesting-- they were writers and critics and artists, but many have been forced out by an unkind economic pendulum.  Or they have died.  I am hanging in, imagining some young girl in my future helping me pack boxes for who knows what, the way I have done in my past for one or two of them.  But I hear the unfamiliar habits of new people through the walls-- faintly but clearly-- and I feel just a tiny bit less 'safe'.

One of my friends engaged me last night in a discussion about dating and expectations, and partnerships, and love.  For some reason I remembered an episode I'd not thought about for so long.  It was my first art gallery job in New York.  I was maybe 22-- there was a recession, I was on a break from Graduate school, writing another paper, and I got a lucky job in one of the best modern galleries in New York… I'd gone in and volunteered.  I want to work here, I said.  You don't have to pay me and I will work very hard.  So they sat me at the front desk where people like Andy Warhol stopped in every week, and because I was a little pretty and so eager, they spoke to me.  I loved my job.  Someone relieved me for lunch, and I hated to leave my post.  I sorted photographs and copied prices into auction catalogues (they used to come on an addendum which was difficult for the bidder), wrote invitations and worked their old phone system which at the time seemed massively futuristic.  I took home $92 a week.  I also worked at Bloomingdale's on Saturdays and Thursday nights, and after paying rent had barely enough to manage a pack of chicken legs, enough rice and eggs to get through a week-- and my morning roll and butter and coffee from a cheap deli.  The bus.  Often I walked to save the 35 cents.  It was one of those rare gaps in my life where I'd just left a boyfriend to bravely discover the city on my own, and the struggle to 'make it' was difficult but ecstatic.  New York in the 1970's was shedding a skin and changing-- but the aura of the old films was there, and the punks and musicians were simmering in some creative soup of poverty.  We girls depended also on dates to provide a relief meal or two so we could actually afford to go out and hear a band.

Anyway, all the great collectors came in and out of my gallery uptown-- I learned to recognize them; they very unpretentiously in those days gave me their name-- quietly and respectfully, and I would call one of the directors upstairs-- my bosses.  One night I was called upstairs, and asked if I would go to dinner with one of these clients-- a Greek man-- he was handsome and dark and always well-dressed with beautiful shoes--hats and gloves.  Do this, my boss said.  I had only a few cheap cotton dresses, but I wore one of them with my old pearls.  He took me to one of the great French restaurants in New York, and I was a little baffled by the menu… so he ordered for me, and watched while I ate course after course.  The food was incredible-- I was nearly starving from my spartan diet… I felt almost high during dessert.  My dinner companion ate nothing.  He sat and drank some wine, he vaguely watched me, spoke little.

The following week they asked me again to have dinner with him.  Same scenario, another restaurant.  This time he asked me if I wanted to see his place.  For some reason I was not afraid-- I knew my boss expected something and I was curious.  He owned a huge house in the 50's… his flat was on a couple of floors.  Inside it felt like a hotel-- very few things, some over-sized furniture, etc….  he poured himself a drink… he was extremely polite… and asked me if I'd stay the night, sleep with him--  he didn't want sex, just company.  So I agreed.  His bed was enormous, he had these beautiful books on the night tables-- everything was immaculate and there was this faint smell of old leather.  Most of the night he sat up and smoked.  The only vaguely incongruous curiosity was this mirror over the bed on the ceiling, 12 or 14 feet up.  It suggested a past erotic life that didn't make sense. I got used to it; maybe it was there when he bought the place, and it provided some lighting device.  I never commented; he never touched me, and in the morning I went home to change.

Week after week this went on--- he began to tell me he'd lost his wife, somehow-- she was some opera singer…I saw her photo, and she was beautiful.  There had been a little boy-- small fragments of his story revealed themselves.  These were the days before anti-depressants and he was chronically, oppressively sad.  He slept and ate little, he travelled, I knew--- ran some huge family business… and he bought art.  In his sparsely furnished apartments there were great pieces of sculpture and amazing paintings.  He took risks.  He supported new gallery stars.  It was amazing to sleep with these things-- to sense them in the dark, the way I now feel my own unlit paintings at night.  He treated me with formality and respect, even though I was cheaply dressed and so green in so many ways;  he spoke to me with depth and intelligence.  I began to touch him… just a little, at first.  I felt so empathically helpless… I was so eager to somehow please my gallery which was my lifeline-- I had no idea what they expected, but the Director, on these Thursdays, would give me a little wink when he left-- it was our secret.

Anyway, he left the country for an extended time, gave me a beautiful gift from Tiffany which I returned.  I used the money to buy myself a raincoat and a fantastic sewing machine.  In a way it was the most beautiful bargain of my life-- a kind of short story I never told.  It was chastely sexual, it was some kind of love, it was sort of a black pearl inside the shell of my young student existence.  The Director is now deceased, and I feel permission to share this-- one of the privileged fairy-tales-with-no-closure of my past, one of my anti-Sex-in-the-City episodes that shaped and changed me.  Of course I went out and did my wilding and lived with my musicians, and was summarily adopted by this city, my birthplace.  But I realize it put sort of a dark stamp on the concept of marriage as the storybook institution we perceive at 21 or 22… it was another surprising B-side and it left me with a kind of warning, an insight into full-blown adult disappointment and deep heartbreak like a kind of scar.  I can still see his dark hair, the cloud of smoke by the faint light of dawn, hear the early morning midtown traffic, my own dark hair and young face in the mirror above… like a sort of Julio Larraz painting.

These days I feel things in my past-- the warp and weft of my existence around which this tapestry of my life has woven itself.  What I realize is we can sense this 'fabric', but we can't actually see it-- not until it's too late.  I do feel a bit of the unravelling lately-- maybe the deaths, the fear of enemies in the world in a new way-- what can we believe?  The high-pressure air mass gives us sunshine and hope but it is married to the invisible stagnant air which is maybe toxic and dangerous?  My son's friend has a new tattoo to commemorate his Mom's death.  It is a lovely thing… but what about all the tattoos we don't see?

This bird that has come to Prospect Park-- it is a truly extraordinary thing.  Of course I would like to see it, but I also know I'd be part of the crowd there which is running back and forth, trying to follow its little twittery path while it explores its new environment.  I see this as a sign-- a good sign-- that unexpected tiny things of great beauty can happen in our lives, that this supersedes art as it is today, that
a random moment can take our breath away.  Besides, this bird is a loner-- and a male… it seemed to have a little scar on its beak in one of the photos, and if you look closely, its eye-- it is not a young bird.  It knows something.  Maybe it is running away from some sorrow or tragedy--- just flew on a whim, or the distraction of grief distorted its trajectory.  I am certain it has come out of its way to a strange and dangerous city to tell us something, and some of us are hopefully still listening.


Friday, December 4, 2015

Guns and Noses

The great thing about New York is the diversity, the fact that we're all thrown in together-- the haves and the have-nots.  I mean, there are a few neighborhoods that seem exclusive, but that doesn't mean there aren't homeless people and panhandlers and mixed street traffic in those zip codes.  The garbage is maybe higher priority for scavenging; there are 2 or 3 'teams' who go through the Park Ave. bags at night, gathering bottles and cans; some of the doormen and porters actually expect these people and make their job easier…  a kind of symbiotic thing happening.  Besides, the bottle collectors work incredibly hard; this is their sole source of income, they have large immigrant families who don't qualify for assistance, and they put in long hours in the heat, in the rain and snow and frigid weather.  They deserve a kind of medal or uniform.  Benefits.

I live in a mixed building; there are older tenants with very limited incomes and the new hedge-fund generation owners who require high-maintenance services and raise the cost of living here.  For these people, monthly increases are meaningless; for the rest of us, it means going without what many people find essential.  Most of us in Manhattan embrace the diversity. Of course, I don't see many of my more fortunate neighbors at the Harlem grocers' trying to save pennies--  they don't even go to stores; they order.  I do see them occasionally up at Chez Lucienne or the Red Rooster when they have tourist visitors who are curious, but mostly they frequent the same 'hoods that are comfortable for them.  Harlem is Harlem.  However gentrified it gets, you can always walk a block or two and find some funk, some hustling and street preaching.  This comforts me.

But what I don't get is how these long-standing residents of Harlem can't resent the extreme fortune of some of their new neighbors.  I mean, just today, one of the fat hedge-fund guys from across the street was walking his dog (not a common practice-- they have 'staff' to do this).  He has many times run down his classic rock nostalgia rap, just to let me know how cool he was or is-- after all, who else buys up the charity concert tickets at the Garden which cost more than my annual food allowance?  So just today-- I've been struggling with some plumbing issues, my kitchen lights are flickering-- the usual repairs that will erase my Christmas budget-- and the guy asks me how I'm doing as I pass.  How am I doing?  I'm fantastic, I answer, and under my breath find myself muttering 'you fat philandering fuck'.  Ouch.  Bitter am I?  This guy once had me bring one of my starving artist friends to hang work all over his hedge fund offices, then failed to pay for it.  After the crash in 2008,  his office was shut down, his billion dollar fund went belly up, and I had to get a state marshall to accompany us to retrieve the art which was dog-eared and ruined.  And today?  Has the guy paid back his investors?  Of course not.  He has another fat job which enables him to buy his kids apartments and pay some obscene rent for his own massive residence.  His Lexus SUV shuttles them back and forth to the Hamptons and they are spending Christmas skiing in the Alps.  Whatever. The guy has never even apologized.  His wife spent more at Barney's this afternoon than I will earn for the rest of my life.  Are they better than I am?  Smarter? Luckier? They are a kind of lowlife, in my estimation, with good table manners and pretentious foodie preferences.  They talk a kind of talk I understand, and they operate within the enormous margin of what I would like to call the outsider economy:  the staggering sums which do not exist in every single bank, mutual fund, most corporations, hedge funds--- the 95% or so fictional percent which is loaned, invested, inflated--- but which gives them the audacious collateral and income to live the way they do, without regard for you and me, without values.  Jamie Dimon is another one of my neighbors… has he ever paid back the money that bailed him out?  I don't think so.  His financial profile is so fat it would eat up a whole zip code.  What does he get?  A little bit of early stage cancer that will be cured painlessly?  A huge Christmas bonus that would solve the world's hunger problem many times over.  Go smoke your fat cigars in your cork-lined room, Jamie.  I'll bet you don't even pay ATM fees.

This Christmas what I've always known seems to be getting some exposure: the myriads of charitable organizations and not-for-profits which collect millions and millions from us bleeding hearts have been a little busted-- and lo and behold, an average of something like 6% of intake actually goes to the needy.  The CEOs and directors, the 'event planners' and fundraising directives receive not just the lion's share but the pig's as well.  I am not a violent person, but I begin to see how, for those of us who aren't getting high and watching cable shows until we pass out, there is an amount of anger and deep-seated bitterness welling up.  The murder rate is spiking in New York City.  Mass killings are at an all-time high.  The gun culture is obscene and people will apparently use whatever is at hand to vent.  Peaceable negotiation doesn't seem to be an option.  Rich people have everything, and they also have prescription power--- pain killers, anti-depressants, anti-anxieties-- you name it-- access to spas and entertainment events--- good food, expensive wine-- it takes the edge off.  The poor and not-quite-brain-dead-- some are angry.  Values don't seem to be taught, and religion seems to be another tool that is used to manipulate political goals.  Guns seem effective and they are cheap.

Politicians don't have the limited health-care options we do.  They don't even have college loans.  Who is looking out for their fellow man when the average millennial knows very little about the world beyond entertainment and their start-up culture?  I worry about my old neighbors, about the homeless fucked-over  veterans I see hanging out in East Harlem at the methadone clinics.  Some of these guys go all the way back to Vietnam.  What is going on?   People lose their homes because they cannot make a payment-- and then our entire economy and the whole obese banking system is based on the very business of debt.

A friend of a friend put a gun in his mouth and shot himself 2 weeks ago.  Why?  He left no note.  Of course, he had a gun and at least he didn't use it on someone else.  But maybe if his neighbor had thought to look in on him that night, he would have felt okay.  He was a good person.  Scott Weiland died yesterday--- his issues were complicated… but was he not the product of the whole music business?  The pressure of becoming an icon and being simply a person?  Having the adoration of everyone and the true love of no one?  Not that his behaviors helped elicit sympathy.  I'm a little angry today… angry and frustrated, and if I weren't educated and humanistic and psychologically astute,  it might occur to me to take it out on someone else.

Yesterday I visited a mental health facility where some of the patients and participants were exhibiting their artwork.  It was extraordinary and honest.  They were forthcoming about their issues and brave and creative.  They were swimming against a brutal current and doing something valuable in this culture which places a 9-figure price tag on a piece of crap made by an employed staff of a fake like Jeff Koons in the name of art.  Their work made the mainstream art market look sad and pathetic.  But who will see this? Certainly Van Gogh needed no bodyguard in his lifetime.  Nor even a bank in which to keep his money.  Who among us has not been insane or mad, at least temporarily?  I felt much more compassion and connection with their work than I have felt in a Barnes & Noble or the new Whitney for that matter.

The forward momentum of any great culture requires rebels and punks and visionaries.  Without mental health facilities like these, special people might not have access to their own talents-- they might become self-destructive or violent.  Here they are saving not just themselves, but others.  This is incredibly empowering.  They saved me yesterday from my own emotional black hole.  Their hope and painted dreams and failure to conform to a society that is sick was a kind of rescue.

The Sex Pistols had guitars; they might just as well have had guns, but they didn't.  I feel a bit useless picking up my pen, playing my songs, carrying a bowl of soup to the homeless guy on the corner, having a conversation with the crazy lady who howls outside the grocery store in East Harlem.   Stuff builds up in people, and when it becomes unbearable, they use whatever tool or weapon they have for relief.  Life is meaningless if we don't show compassion for one another, if we don't appreciate people and what they do.  Dogs become mean if mistreated; and why are we all so uber-sympathetic to animals?  It seems so possible to rehabilitate a dog, but not a person?  Dogs are cute--even the old ones.  Humans are not always so cute… especially the old and angry ones who spit and curse and disturb.

I've been seeing the same 'Happiness' statistics recently  over and over-- a scientific study was conducted which concluded that 50% of happiness is genetic, 10% circumstantial, and 40% is changeable-- diet, behavior, exercise, social participation, etc. Why in this world of threatened chemical and biological warfare can we not start an epidemic of kindness and compassion?  Statisticians are obsessed with population growth, ethnicity--- nose counts and data--- can they not poll people about their emotional status and consider this?  Let's at least begin with some human honesty because besides our 10% economic and geographical difference, we are all very, very similar.  And for God's or pity's sake, let's take the guns out of Walmart; no one ever really won a competition of any skill by destroying his opponent.  Amen.